I have been speaking to a lot of diversity and inclusion professionals lately. After we share what we do and the myriad successes, the conversation always turns to the obstacles we face – the push-back, the hurdles and the misconceptions we have to overcome in our dogged determination to effectuate change in the business world. Here is my compilation of the top 5, not in any particular order, culled from talking to thousands of stakeholders, HR professionals and CEO’s, and the real truth behind the myths.
Number 5: “We Don’t Need Help – We Are Already Doing It Just Fine”
A lot of executive management genuinely want to do what is right and truly believe that they are demonstrating commitment by simply endorsing ERG’s, a women’s group or a diversity initiative. The fact that these programs may be ad hoc, are not comprehensively embedded into corporate processes and are not leveraged to drive competitive advantage or sustainability does not always resonate with senior management. Having groups or events where similar people can come together and feel comfortable seems all that is needed. While this is not about the blame game, when I hear this objection, I always start asking questions. What data is the company measuring? How diverse is the executive management team? What accountability mechanisms are in place to ensure a cultural commitment to attracting, retaining and promoting diverse talent? What education is provided around inclusion issues? Typically the answers speak for themselves. It takes an innovative, agile and forward focused organization to recognize what is really necessary to shift corporate culture and create pathways of equal access for all stakeholders.
Number 4: “How Does This Help My Company Make $$$$$”
I get it. Believe me I do. I spent 20 years as a corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney so I know quite well what happens when a company does not make enough money. And I also understand that the financial cause and effect of a well-executed diversity and inclusion initiative is much more attenuated than bringing in a new client or getting a huge purchase order. But, the reality is, utilized properly, a diversity and inclusion program can make your company money. Every CEO and executive team know about the “business case” – how diversity drives higher return in sales, higher return on invested capital and higher return on equity. About how it is critical to retention – and how much it costs to replace an employee. Every CEO knows that the world is changing, that diversity and inclusion is part of that change and is crucial to succession planning. They know that diversity increases collective intelligence, leads to better problem solving and cultivates creativity. They know it creates innovation, forward focused thinking and growth mindset, all of which is necessary to drive competitive advantage, profitability and ROI. Asking how diversity and inclusion helps a company make money is the wrong question. Companies should instead be asking how much money they will lose if they do not truly embrace a culture of cultivation.
Number 3: “If More Diverse People Are Promoted Into Leadership, White Men Get Pushed Out”
This may not be the most politically correct objection, but it is certainly made. We need to deal with this one once and for all. First, this is not about putting people into leadership positions as some kind of affirmative action program or to have a token woman or ethnic minority or LGBTQ stakeholder just to have that person. Anyone in a leadership position has arguably earned that place, so we need to presume merit as a threshold matter. Second, this is an argument that I have heard individuals make, so the concern is not really with white men as a group, but with that particular white man raising the issue. [N.B. – this is not a white-male bashing statement or an over-generalization, it is simply meant to address an objection that I have heard too often] But this is not a one-for-one analysis related to diversity. White men compete against each other all the time for positions. It is simply two (or more) people vying for the same place in the organization. Yes, it is true that some companies have committed to having at least 30% women in leadership or board positions by a date certain. But that is because there are typically no women in those roles and those companies know, as Catalyst’s research states, “gender-diverse boards have been shown again and again to have a positive impact on different measures of firm performance, especially when they include a critical mass of women.” Which leads to the last myth buster: what is really so bad about getting more diversity into our leadership ranks? We know diversity increases profitability, margins and performance – what company wouldn’t want more diversity at the top? Diversity is not at the expense of men, it is for the benefit of the organization, which ultimately results in more success for everyone.
Number 2: “We Have No Budget/We Have No Resources/We Don’t Know Where to Start”
This objection is common for middle market companies that do not typically have diversity departments and instead rely on employees to run their diversity programs. But, while they may not have diversity departments, they usually do have the money to use for diversity efforts. It becomes a matter of priority and commitment as to whether and how these companies want to allocate the funds. Any company that wants to compete in the workplace of tomorrow needs to have a diversity initiative. It cannot afford not to. It is really that simple. And if a company is not willing to put resources behind an initiative, that company does not have true commitment and is interested in just “checking the box.” Now, that does not mean that a mid-sized company has to have an initiative the size and complexity of Apple, for instance. But it does mean that the elements that make these initiatives successful – CEO willful commitment, a holistic, embedded approach that leverages diversity of thought and mindset, a high-trust culture, a demonstrated path of equal access for all stakeholders – are all in place. It is not easy to do all of this alone. It is time-intensive and requires expertise. Which is why many companies do not know where to start, so they start with book clubs, networking events or days featuring food from various cultures. And while these things are good, they will never create change or a sought-after workplace. Companies need diversity and inclusion strategists to take them from good to great.
Number 1: “A D&I Initiative Will Only Make Things Worse”
This one is actually the most interesting to me because it is so counter-intuitive. If your company is making this argument, there is a long way to go to changing your corporate culture. The argument usually goes something like: “it will alienate certain people,” or “why don’t we have a men’s group,” or “the suggestion that we even need this offends me.” While research shows that a diversity initiative that is dictated to or forced on employees without buy-in will be highly ineffective at best, and detrimental at worst, this argument has more to do with how an initiative is rolled out and positioned and less to do with the fact that it is being implemented in the first place. I always tell clients that embedding diversity and inclusion is like turning the Titanic around – it takes time, courage, commitment and consistency. And it only works when everyone is part of the process. While, the CEO and senior management create the top-down execution, clearly demonstrating that diversity and inclusion is a priority, all stakeholders, (especially middle management who are on the ground) need to be educated and included in process development and discussion. Having transparent and trusting conversations about these issues is difficult and uncomfortable. But dissent creates better problem solving, If we cannot have challenging discussions, we can’t ever move past them to actually creating workplace environments where everyone feels valued, respected and included. And that should be the goal of every diversity and inclusion initiative.