By Rosalyn Taylor O’Neale | Nov 2, 2018

Every day, good and virtuous people who have intentionally or blindly stumbled into managing and leading others are faced with questions that test their personal and professional mettle. These questions come from every part of the organization –individuals with titles ranging from assistant and manager to CEO are faced with challenges that weren’t addressed in college, trade school, management seminars, or in-house training.

How do you help the executive who comes to you and says, “I’ve done everything I can to motivate my managers to meet their diversity goals. Some of them seem to get it, but most of them don’t. I really don’t think it’s because they don’t want to; I just think they have a lot to do and it’s hard to focus on this.”

Or what about the employee who says, “My manager doesn’t have a clue about managing diversity. She says she supports it, and in the same breath, she tells a joke making fun of one of the gay men in the group. Her boss thinks she’s on board, so what can I do?”

How do you handle the angry colleague who articulates (or worse, doesn’t but silently thinks it all throughout your diversity training), “This diversity stuff is a bunch of B.S. Everybody has the same chance to be successful here. If you fail, it’s because you’re just not able to cut it. All the time we’re spending on these programs is costing us time and money.”

These are hard questions with no cookie-cutter answers. Nor should there be. By its very nature, diversity allows for the infinite algorithm of human engagement, and resistance will always arise. What an organization can do, however, is make it clear why diversity matters. And make that answer visible across the organization.

Diversity is the New Safety Initiative

While conducting one of my first diversity training sessions at a company that prided itself on its “Safety First” initiative, I leaned back on a chair while I spoke. During a break, an employee approached me and asked, “Would you please not lean on the chair back? It’s really not safe.” I was struck by her frankness and lack of concern about my reaction. She didn’t hesitate or stumble, and she was not self-conscious asking a stranger to help with the company’s safety initiative.

Often employees are not comfortable addressing others’ exclusive behavior, saying they don’t want to seem like the “diversity police”. But clearly, when an organization and its leadership demonstrate a serious commitment to a principle, employees have no problem requesting others to engage in the agreed-upon observable behaviors.

Demonstrating a serious commitment means making it visible. Every week you should ask yourself and others on your leadership team:

When is the last time I/we talked about diversity?

Do my/our direct reports know which way we are headed and what needs to happen next?

Is inclusion a part of every message I/we deliver?

If I am a new employee, how long will it take before I am aware of this initiative and its importance to our organization?

Do our clients, customers, vendors, and suppliers know how important this is to us, and are they clear about the role they can play to help us achieve it?

When I/we visit any of our buildings, are there clear indications that diversity and inclusion are important to our organization?

It’s also important that leaders, when making their diversity initiatives visible, link it to business case rationales. There are four major business case rationales that companies often cite when communicating why they are spending money on creating greater diversity and inclusion:

1. Fear and Avoidance

2. Fairness and Justice

3. Marketplace Opportunities

4. Workplace of Choice

Each business case has its pros and cons, which we discuss below.

Fear and Avoidance

This business case assumes that a successful initiative will avoid costly lawsuits and negative publicity. Like any jolt of fear, this can easily galvanize leadership and money for a diversity initiative. However, it’s also a knee-jerk response, and fails to help an organization achieve long-term sustainability in its business objectives.

Fairness and Justice

The fairness and justice business case basically puts forth that it’s a moral imperative for organizations to participate in fair and just practices and ensure fair treatment of members of society. The “right thing to do” movement can feel good to both leaders and employees. It’s easy to rally people around the idea of creating a level playing field.

However, when resources become scarce and financial pressures increase, it’s difficult to justify doing something differently today based on an idea of righting the world’s wrongs. People may respond by saying they had no part in creating the injustices of our society. How do you explain investing the time, energy, and money in a journey because our forefathers were prejudiced?

Marketplace Opportunities

This is often the easiest business case to sell: the link between an organization’s success and its ability to capture new and expanding markets, clients, and customers. The data is irrefutable:

Recent research found that diversity boosts innovation for U.S. companies, as measured by the number of new patents a company holds.

Employees at companies with highly diverse leaders are “45% likelier to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market,” according to the Harvard Business Review.

Having a diverse workforce builds trust in your brand with a diverse target market, according to the European Commission. A rationale based on marketplace opportunities resonates with companies competing on a global stage or in diverse cities and communities. And money is always a motivator in business.

However, a singular focus on innovation for profit can wander into cultural appropriation and/or seem hollow and disrespectful to the communities the organization is trying to target. Genuine marketplace innovation requires including new audiences in both the making and consuming of new goods and services.

Workplace of Choice

The demographics of the United States is changing so rapidly that there is no escaping the necessity of learning to work with people of diverse backgrounds. More importantly, if an organization hopes to remain viable and vibrant enough to attract and retain the best talent, they will have to develop cultures that are friendly and welcoming to a wider variety of employees and customers. The most visionary leaders recognize that the employees who can help them achieve success in an increasingly complex and competitive world no longer represent a single race, ethnicity, or gender.

The additional benefit of this rationale is that when organizations ensure that the changing workforce (different ethnicities and nationalities, differently-abled individuals, women, LGBTQ, employees who are virtual or globally dispersed) have access and feels included, the result is a more energized and productive employee base. Satisfied employees then deliver better customer service, are more engaged, provide more referrals for hiring, and are less likely to leave, leading to lower turnover costs. In short, your investment in people delivers the highest ROI possible.

The one Achilles heel in this rationale is if an organization focuses solely on internal happiness at the neglect of customers, the market, or profits, the company will end up with excited but unemployed people. 

In conclusion, knowing your why for your diversity and inclusion initiatives is critical. Every leader should be able to answer, “Why are we spending one dollar or one hour working on this initiative?” The majority of organizations get in trouble when their initiatives fail to build a clear and strong business case or fails to make the business case and rationale visible throughout the organization.

People do what they believe is important, and visibility is a tangible measure of importance. If you want to understand what an organization values, look at what it talks about publicly and privately.

Rosalyn Taylor O’Neale is a Principal Consultant with Cook Ross who has more than 30 years of experience leading learning-based interventions in over 48 countries. Rosalyn designs global diversity and inclusion strategic initiatives and leads workshops, seminars, and leadership development programs.