What Elon Musk Does Not Understand About DEI Programs – Forbes

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billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk – carrying a sink as he enters the Twitter headquarters in San … [+] Francisco. (Photo by -/Twitter account of Elon Musk/AFP via Getty Images)
The First Amendment grants us all freedom of speech. When you’re a billionaire with your own social network you have a disproportionately large platform to say whatever you like. When you’re one of the richest people in the world what you say has gravity, even if what you say is uninformed, or just plain erroneous.
Elon this month tweeted to his 167 million followers the terse statement that “DEI must DIE”. He then went on to suggest that “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are propaganda words for racism and sexism… changing the target class doesn’t make it right”. His pronouncements have, at the time of writing, been seen by more than 40 million people.
Elon appears to be laboring under a common misapprehension, that DEI programs center on filling quotas. The implication in his tweets being that DEI programs provide unfair advantages to historically marginalized groups. Such an approach would be unlawful here in the United States, which is one of the many reasons that this is not how DEI frameworks operate in corporate America.
At their most foundational, diversity, equity and inclusion programs exist to help ensure corporate environments better reflect the communities they operate in. Historically marginalized groups (women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community) tend to be under-represented in corporate America, in large part due to generations of systemic and structural inequity that have prevented these groups achieving the same level of access that has typically been afforded to straight, white, men.
This disproportionate representation of straight white men becomes more acute the further up the corporate hierarchy you go. Historically this group has enjoyed uneven access to power and privilege, and the goal of DEI is simply to level the playing field, ultimately resulting in more proportional representation. Given that the population is ~50% female it would logically follow that 50% of senior leaders in an organization would also be female, though this is rarely the case (in the current Fortune 500 CEO cohort there are just 52 female CEO’s)
In corporate America these efforts are rooted in data, which is perhaps the origin of some of the alarmist and erroneous soundbites being propagated across social media. Typically, an organization will look at their employee demographic data, usually sliced by band/level within the organization, and compare that to the general population. If the general population comprises 50% women, 40% people of color, and 7% LGBTQ+ folks, but your senior leadership is 80% male, 90% white and 2% LGBTQ+, then you can start to see where you might want to put some effort into building a more diverse workforce. Not least because all the data shows that diverse organizations achieve disproportionately better business outcomes.
The most typical, and expedient, way to address under representation is during the hiring process. The most common approach being mandated diverse slates of candidates, and most crucially, equally diverse panels of decision makers. In this approach it is the recruiting teams’ responsibility to surface slates of equally qualified candidates that, for example, are 50% female and 33% people of color. (A typical candidate slate consists of six people, and a mandate may say that each slate needs at least 3 women and 2 people of color).
The HR business partnering team and the recruiting team usually share the responsibility in ensuring that the hiring manager selects a diverse panel of decision makers for the interview process. This philosophy helps to create a more level playing field that, over time, will mean that more women and people of color get hired.
It is critical to understand that pursuing diverse slates and panels in the interview process is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. However, mandating that slate is all female or providing direction to only hire a person of color, are both examples of positive discrimination, and are unlawful.
The foundation of the diverse slate approach is that all candidates, irrespective of demographic, meet or exceed the minimum criteria for a role. If the role requires five years of experience managing managers, and there was an effort to include someone with only three years of experience to make up the numbers, this would also be an example of positive discrimination, and would be unlawful.
In short, DEI programs are not about hiring women or people of color ahead of straight white men (because this would be illegal) nor are they about hiring less qualified women or people of color ahead of straight white men (because this would also be illegal).
In all the corporate DEI programs that I’ve been involved with (I’ve mostly worked in Fortune 500 environments) a core principle has always been we hire the most qualified person for the role. It is totally possible to strive for high-quality hiring, which also does a better job of unearthing qualified talent, that more evenly represents the diversity of the communities we operate in.
It is also true that some of our legacy hiring practices, such as requiring a four-year college degree, can have the unintended negative consequence of disproportionately excluding historically marginalized groups. So, while in some industries the “glass ceiling” still exists, in most industries there is also a “paper ceiling”. On the surface, having a policy that says that all management roles require a college degree may seem equitable, but it can actually drive unequal outcomes. Many larger corporations are now moving away from this binary approach and instead redefining ‘qualified’ to include either a college degree, or a specific number of years of professional experience.
It is possible to both hire for merit, and to recognize that historic barriers to accessing college do not preclude someone from having gained comparable skills and experience in a non-academic setting.
At the crux of all of this is the fact that while talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not. DEI programs exist to try to redress some of this uneven distribution, so that everyone in society has the opportunity to succeed on their merits.

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