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Viewpoint: Building a Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion

A group of business people sitting around a table.

​Lesley Slaton Brown comes from a diverse family background, which not only helps her develop a deep understanding of different cultures, practices and traditions that are unlike her own but also makes her value and appreciate these differences even more. 

As the chief diversity officer at HP, she believes that by valuing differences—whether related to race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, ability, military status, religion, generation, sexual orientation or political views—companies can not only attract but also engage top industry talent to drive long-term success. And this is not just a values issue; it is a business issue. By retaining and embracing a diverse workforce, HP is better enabled to serve these diverse customers and communities. 

"Diversity is a business imperative and should be woven throughout everything the organization does," Slaton Brown said. 

The case for diversity improving the bottom line is well-documented. 

In McKinsey & Company's 2015 report, Why Diversity Matters, companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity were more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median. The data suggest that when companies commit themselves to diversity they are better able to attract top talent, improve employee satisfaction and decision making, and be more customer-oriented. 

The urgency and push for diversity and inclusion (D&I) reflects the demographic shifts in the workforce. As more women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ individuals, veterans, and people with disabilities enter the workforce, organizations are challenged to find new ways to create a more dynamic workplace—one that fosters engagement and innovation and drives performance.

There is also a growing generation gap to consider. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by the year 2025 Millennials will make up 75 percent of the workforce. Many Millennials are foreign-born, biracial and LGBTQ, and they define diversity differently from previous generations. For them, diversity is an individual mix of unique experiences, identities, ideas and opinions more so than any single trait. 

However, having a diverse workforce doesn't automatically translate into an inclusive culture. Rather it's something that needs to be built intentionally. HP encourages people to bring their whole selves into the office, have their voices heard, and have their creativity and innovation unleashed, Slaton Brown said. 

"Creating an inclusive work environment where people have a real sense of belonging is a prerequisite for diversity to thrive in organizations," she said. 

Top-to-Bottom Strategy 

There is a growing recognition that, in order for D&I to be successful, it must be a top-to-bottom business strategy and not just an HR program or initiative. In a recent survey conducted by Deloitte, over 69 percent of executives rate D&I as an important issue, and the proportion of executives who cited inclusion as a priority has risen by 32 percent compared to a similar survey conducted in 2014. 

Cultural transformation in a company requires cultural competence, which is defined by the American Psychological Association as "the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one's own."

Orlando Bishop, vice president of development for The Kaleidoscope Group in Chicago, believes that HR professionals who take the initiative to cultivate cultural competence can educate others on the power of D&I and its potential impact on business outcomes.

"Individuals throughout the organization, who would have proceeded with limited vision, expand their field of vision both through creating more diverse teams and developing a more diverse lens of their own," Bishop said.

While many companies focus on training as the most expedient way to build this skill, participants often have difficulty translating what they learned in the classroom to real-life situations. 

There's no substitute for direct experience. When employees volunteer for overseas assignments, they have myriad opportunities to practice and develop cultural competence. But even volunteer opportunities closer to home can be useful in this regard.  

As an example, many of the participants in Bank of America's volunteer service projects said they felt that volunteering with their co-workers increased their ability to get along with people from diverse backgrounds. 

Although D&I initiatives and volunteer groups are generally distinct entities, Aetna has attempted to integrate the two by having representatives from D&I employee resource groups (ERGs) and volunteer councils serving jointly together and even co-sponsoring events. 

Maximizing Employee Resource Groups 

ERGs are groups that were initially created to give under-represented populations (such as veterans, women, minorities, individuals with disabilities, LGBTQ employees and people of particular generations) a safe space where they would feel heard and supported. Many groups have now evolved to more closely align with organizational strategy and business goals. 

At HP, ERGs have become business impact networks (BINs). "They play a crucial role in fostering a culture and communities of diversity and belonging," Slaton Brown said. These groups are catalysts to the cultivation of an inclusive environment, worksite by worksite, where employees can belong, innovate and grow. 

At Bloomberg LP in New York City, ERGs called Communities align themselves with key business initiatives in functional areas, including HR. They have been instrumental in developing recruitment strategies targeting graduates from historically black colleges and universities, veterans, women and LGBTQ individuals. 

"ERGS are one of our most important resources in the drive to develop and maintain an inclusive corporate culture in an increasingly exclusive world," said Erika Irish Brown, global head of diversity and inclusion at Bloomberg. "They should be a priority for all employers who care about talent, culture and business performance." 

Success often depends on a group's charter and structure.

A Millennial ERG at a major airline decided to combat the negative stereotypes that older co-workers and managers sometimes hold about younger employees. They set up a task force to work with HR to develop a reverse mentoring program that was designed to foster intergenerational collaborations. A veteran ERG at the airline set a goal of actively recruiting 40 percent more veterans. 

Mitigating Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is a significant barrier to creating an inclusive environment where a diverse workforce can thrive.  

Unconscious biases are stereotypes or preconceived notions (both positive and negative) about others that people are not consciously aware of. When people become more aware of these unconscious assumptions, they are better able to make more objective decisions and engage in more inclusive interactions. 

To address this issue, organizations are investing in unconscious bias training (UBT).

Although UBT is not a magic potion that directly increases bottom line revenue or instantly repairs reputational damage, it can improve morale, increase engagement and foster a more inclusive environment where employees feel free to speak out. 

"A lot of companies hedge too many bets on trainings and expect them to solve much deeper organizational issues," said Erin Thomas, Ph.D., a partner at Paradigm Strategy Inc., in Chicago. "These trainings are most effective when they are paired with action-oriented strategies." 

According to Thomas, viable outcomes from diversity training include: 

  • Establishing a baseline of awareness that enables organizations to have strategic conversations about D&I.
  • Engaging and enabling all employees to recognize themselves as part of the diversity equation.
  • Equipping employees to adopt inclusive behaviors that support broader inclusion efforts.

Slaton Brown says it is important to provide UBT across all levels of the company. In her experience, if done right, participants emerge from the training equipped to mitigate bias, lead inclusive discussions and cultivate a growth mindset for themselves and their teams.

Beyond training, HR practitioners can revisit existing policies and processes with a more objective, clear and unbiased eye. For example, some companies are experimenting with removing names from resumes because candidates with non-white-sounding names may be hired less frequently. 

New technologies can help in other areas. SAP SuccessFactors has embedded an analyzer into its software to help companies craft competitive job descriptions that eliminate unconscious bias. Digital interviewing software developed by HireVue counteracts unconscious bias by designing a more fair and objective interview experience.  

Cultivating a New Mindset

Don't be afraid to be innovative and find creative ways to introduce diversity within your organization. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Learn from ways other organizations have broken the mold. Microsoft and EY, for example are hiring neurodiverse colleagues. American Express and AT&T are willing to consider hiring felons. Goldman Sachs and PayPal are bringing women who have taken career breaks for various reasons back into the workforce. 

In today's dynamic, technology-driven world, where employees, customers and other stakeholders are from diverse cultures across the globe, the ability to innovate successfully depends on applying the broadest set of perspectives to business challenges. Homogeneity prevents us from effectively looking at problems from all perspectives and threatens us with the specter of groupthink—the bane of countless companies throughout history.   

"Embracing diversity and inclusion infuses organizations with fresh perspectives that inoculate us from the plague of complacency by ensuring that our assumptions always are questioned," Slaton Brown said.

Rashi Dubey is a global HR business partner for HP in New York City.Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.  


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