Workplace Diversity: What Happens When White Men Don't Want It

Thomas Friedman probably did not intend to offer any insights about white-male bias in yesterday's New York Times Op-ed "59 is the new 30," but the diversity consultant in me could not ignore how his underlying theme explained why diversity is a dilemma in Corporate America and law firms: diversity efforts fail when white men don't give a damn about their employees of color.

Yesterday, Friedman gushed about how he identified with a 59 year-old golfer and how this affinity engendered a personal stake in the golfer's tournament, writing, "...if you are a baby boomer you could not help but look at him and say something you would never say about Tiger or Kobe: 'He's my age; he's my build; he's my height and he even had his hip replaced like me. If he can do that, maybe I can do something like that, too."

To a certain extent, we are all guilty of identity-bias. Friedman and I share a healthy bias in wanting to see those who we identify with succeed. (I'll admit that every time I see President Obama's popularity poll numbers slip, I wince.) However, white men, who are still the majority of executives and partners in corporations and law firms, can kill a diversity initiative if their identity bias is only based on physical affinity.

Almost every professional of color I featured in my book, Recruiting & Retaining a Diverse Workforce: New Rules for a New Generation, watched their senior-level white supervisor champion the success of a lucky-to-be-white guy. Whether senior white male executives identify with junior-level white men because they are reminders of their more youthful days or reminders of their children, the result is the same. Junior-level white men are getting better access to informal and formal mentoring.

A few years ago when I was giving a diversity presentation to a group lawyers, an earnest white male partner asked why associates of color tend to leave law firms after a few years. A recent study by Catalyst, the non-profit that conducts research about race and gender issues in the workplace, released a study last week that put statistics to the partner's retention quandary. According to the study, 86% of women attorneys of color leave their law firms by their seventh year. Even more startling, all of the firms that participated in the study have diversity and inclusion programs. Why aren't these programs working? It's simple. Until senior-level white men take a stake in the success of their employees of color, their organizations' retention and promotion efforts will fail.

When white male executives sincerely ask how they can keep more of their Black, Asian and Latino talent, I ask, how much do they really want them? If senior-level white men siphoned some of their identity bias toward the Asian man or Black woman in the office, racial diversity wouldn't be an issue. More white male executives have to want their employees of color to succeed. More white male executives need to stop by the offices of their employees of color to check in and see how they are doing; give unsolicited and invaluable advice about career tracks; or make it their business to assign the next high-profile matter to a person of color. White men are capable of this type of obsession with another's success. If you don't believe me, just ask Thomas Friedman.