Are Your Diversity and Inclusion Efforts Only Skin Deep?

Recently the president of a non-profit organization reached out to ask if I would join his board. He led with several kind compliments about his confidence in my ability to be an effective board member. He then said something that seemed very inclusive: “We need your demographic.” I initially applauded his efforts to diversify his team in what I assumed was an effort to better serve all members of our community. However, he then explained that he was specifically recruiting me because he wanted to appeal to the women in his organization. He felt these women were roadblocks to him on some key initiatives, and his observations of me made him hopeful that my perspectives were more similar to the board’s. In other words, he wanted the reputational benefits of diversity but was missing the more critical advantages that come with the inclusion of diverse thought.

The Business Case

Thanks to organizations like McKinsey, Deloitte, Catalyst, Lean In, and the American Sociological Association, there is a strong business case for diversity and inclusion. For example, McKinsey’s most recent diversity report includes compelling research about the superior financial results of those that prioritize hiring and including diverse talent in critical roles. Companies that have ethnically diverse leadership teams were 33 percent more likely to outperform their peers. Those with gender diversity were 21 percent more likely to outperform others.  Similarly, Deloitte found that companies that are inclusive of diverse talent have up to 30 percent higher revenue per employee than competitors.

Given this body of evidence that diversity and inclusion practices improve business outcomes, many executives now view having a diversity and inclusion strategy as a priority; however, there seems to be a knowing-doing gap. Research by Sara Jones, CEO of InclusionPro, shows that 95 percent of leaders say they want a Diversity and Inclusion plan, but only 25 percent of leaders actually have one. Furthermore, Deloitte reports that only 38 percent of executives in companies that prioritize diversity and inclusion see the CEO as the sponsor of the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Measuring Inclusion

The majority of my diversity and inclusion clients have HR sponsors who are making noble efforts to hire and retain diverse candidates. However, scores on the inclusion questions in our employee engagement survey indicate that this diverse talent is still not feeling as included in core work and decision making as other employees. To remedy this, senior leaders must understand which individual and organizational behaviors are barriers to inclusion and sponsor the needed change initiatives. I recommend HR leaders assess their inclusion current state in order to build a company-specific business case that will get the attention of their executives. My research indicates that there are three key areas organizations should measure to effectively build the case for inclusion.

1. The Organization Seeks Out and Values Diverse Voices

DecisionWise research shows that employees are more willing to give discretionary effort when they are given opportunities to meaningfully contribute in the organization and are recognized for those efforts. Social science data shows that overt discrimination has decreased in organizations, but subtle biases are still rampant and can be a significant barrier to minorities’ contributions. For this reason, it takes concentrated effort to solicit the input and contributions of minority employees.

Recently I interviewed several high potential women about their experience as leaders in a large, multi-national corporation. A particularly bright, articulate leader told me she often struggles to participate in executive meetings. I was surprised that such a competent woman felt uncomfortable voicing her opinions. But additional research has taught me that when meeting norms are set by the majority, minorities commonly struggle to enter the conversation. Several of the other female leaders I interviewed shared similar experiences. They added that the contributions they did make often went unacknowledged. It was sobering to realize that the organization had increased the diversity of their leadership teams; however, diverse perspectives were not being included in dialogues that directly affect diverse customers, employees, and other key stakeholders.

2. All Employees Feel They Belong in the Organization

In 2018 our number one driver of engagement was “I feel like I belong here”. When you are different from the majority in some way, it is much harder to feel like you are truly accepted. We recently analyzed our clients’ engagement drivers for the last three years. “I feel like I belong here” was our number one driver of engagement. In other words, feeling like a true member of the organization has a direct relationship with where an employee lies on the engagement spectrum.

One senior leader I interviewed shared his experience being a person of color in a large, consumer goods company. This was his first job out of college, and he was understandably anxious about how he would fit in. The company went the extra mile in their onboarding process by inviting him to join an employee resource group (ERG) for black professionals. Through this community he found a mentor that helped him successfully navigate the first few years of his career. Though he still experienced challenges, he felt the organization cared about his well-being in creating this support structure for him. He also felt a great sense of belonging by being part of a community that could provide so much empathy.

3. All Employees are Given Opportunities to Develop and Grow so They can Contribute More Meaningfully

One of the greatest engagement levers organizations have is involving their employees in meaningful work. Not only does this allow employees to have immediate impact, it also gives them the tools to contribute more significantly in the future. Frequent coaching conversations help managers ensure employees have the experiences, feedback, and tools to increase their meaningful contributions. Unfortunately, research shows that women do not receive specific performance or development feedback as often as men. As a result, men often better understand where they are excelling and how they can progress in the organization.

Society’s call for more gender balance in leadership roles is motivating companies to focus on greater equality in employee development. The Me Too movement, for example, was advantageous in that it exposed the sexism that still exists in organizations, and, as a result, many organizations are focused on ferreting out toxic biases and power dynamics. However, there were also some unintended consequences. In the last two years, I have heard several women report they are having less interaction with men than they were before Me Too. Furthermore, male leaders have reported they are more reticent to interact with women, because they are concerned they might say or do something that is seen as inappropriate and be reported for it. Given the large majority of executives are male, this trend could result in even less feedback, mentorship, and sponsorship for female employees.

How Can Executives Lead the Charge?

Fortunately, some executives are seeing these trends and finding ways to be more inclusive. For instance, I interviewed a chief legal officer who had done some self-analysis and realized he was spending significantly more time with men in the workplace. He decided to set the example of being more equitable in his mentorship and sponsorship by having small group lunches with both genders and creating mixed-gender work teams. Another senior executive decided to make a concentrated effort to invite minorities into executive conversations and recognize their contributions.

It is encouraging to see senior leaders realizing that diversity and inclusion is both a business and social imperative. Saying it is a priority is the first step. We need more leaders who have the courage to speak authentically about why the inclusion of diverse talent is critical. In addition, they need to look at personal and company behaviors that may be keeping them from reaching their stated goals. Candid dialogue about the gap between the current and desired state will lead to the right inclusion strategies. Regular accountability will bridge the knowing-doing gap and lead companies to a more inclusive and successful future.