Most American CEOs are white men. Most board members are white men, as are companies’ senior executives and other people in authority. Few women or minority group members hold positions of power. This is how things were 100 years ago and even 50 years ago. Despite decades of corporate diversity initiatives, power in the American workplace seldom mirrors the society at large. Subconscious bias accounts for most of this imbalance. Barbara Adams, a diversity expert with more than 20 years’ experience, advises business leaders on what they can do to eliminate this bias and make their firms more diverse and inclusive. Adams discusses concrete policies businesses might apply to increase diversity and bring more women and people who belong to minority groups into positions of power. She also details attitudes and judgments many already in power hold, whether they know it or not. Adams’s insights will serve hiring managers, HR professionals, executives, and all those who want more equitable workplaces.
- Firms that are diverse and inclusive perform better than firms that are not.
- Diversity requires including women and men of different ages and races.
- Inclusivity calls for complete integration of all employees into all company operations and activities.
- Many US firms find it difficult to become diverse and inclusive.
- This springs primarily from the subconscious bias of executives and employees.
- Reasons include groupthink and retrogressive attitudes.
- Women and minorities benefit from having managers who coach them on “political navigation” and skills development.
- To change the workplace, focus on staff behavior, not corporate culture.
- Recruit and hire a chief diversity and inclusion officer (CDIO).
- The CEO and CDIO should jointly provide the board the strongest possible business case for a diversity and inclusivity (D&I) initiative.
- Once approved, set clear D&I goals for your firm, with target dates for each D&I objective.
Inclusive Diversity Is Great for Business
For some time, businesspeople have discussed, written and spoken publicly about two hot topics: diversity and inclusion. Diversity means hiring, retaining and promoting all types of people, including women, minorities and “other extraordinary people.” Inclusion calls for integrating them into your organization’s operations and activities.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)
Combine diversity and inclusivity, and you get inclusive diversity. This sound strategy is better for business; it leads to stronger financial returns, higher productivity and more consistent innovation. Inclusive diversity leads to improved global GDP, and it’s the correct moral and ethical way for companies to manage hiring and retention in recognition that worker rights – no matter who the workers may be – are human rights.
“Women and minorities often benefit from having managers that coach them on political navigation and skills development.”
For evidence of the value of inclusive diversity, Catalyst, an organization that focuses on improving women’s role in the workplace, states that firms with three or more female board members achieve a 53% better return on equity, a 42% better return on sales and a 66% better return on invested capital.
“The business value of diversity and inclusion is widely documented, with significant data to support the idea that diverse, inclusive teams consistently outperform homogeneous teams.”
McKinsey & Company’s “Diversity Matters” report covering 366 companies worldwide states that the odds are 35% better that diverse, inclusive firms will outperform their competitors. Additional positive research results strongly indicate that firms that are diverse and inclusive outperform firms that aren’t.
Diversity Isn’t Inclusion
Diversity and inclusion are two different concepts. Diversity concerns differences among employees in religion, ethnicity, gender, nationality, age, physical ability, and so on. Inclusion means valuing these differences. To get a wide variety of original ideas from your workforce, bring people of different backgrounds, sensibilities and experience together. As you integrate them into your operations, you’ll gain their insights on business and marketing operations, on new products or services, on new customers, and on other pertinent issues. Properly implemented, such innovation drives corporate growth.
Enlightened Hiring Practices
Despite the strong evidence in support of diversity and inclusiveness, many American firms don't practice either one, primarily due to the subconscious bias of many executives and employees. Indifference, faulty assumptions about other people, groupthink and retrograde attitudes are also major impediments to diversity and inclusion.
“Diversity fatigue means we’ve momentarily lost sight of the magnitude of opportunity before us.”
Instead of giving women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities a chance, many hiring managers primarily hire white males. These companies need to upgrade to a more inclusive approach – “holistic hiring.” Inclusive diversity can turbocharge any firm’s operations, productivity and financial results, but it’s not always easy to achieve.
“Businesses that recognize the importance of and even champion workforce diversity and inclusion are usually unable to overcome the culture and mind-set that make this work, let alone be sustainable.”
Inclusive diversity may require a major change in corporate mind-set. Companies need to establish “safe spaces” where employees can openly discuss bias and oppression within their workplace without fear of retribution. You can’t get rid of corporate bias unless you openly confront it – something that can intimidate even the most resolute executives.
Silicon Valley is supposedly a bright-spot hub of forward-thinking, progressive businesspeople who operate in a more enlightened manner. In 2014, many technological giants went on record that they had a lot of work to do to become more appropriately diverse and inclusive employers. Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Apple, Yahoo, eBay and other Silicon Valley firms reported that they were behind on meeting their inclusive diversity goals. They acknowledged the need to make a more robust effort and to institute ambitious diversity and inclusivity (D&I) initiatives.
“We all possess the ability to learn to replace the judgment and bias that naturally occur in us with curiosity about differences.”
Nevertheless, by 2017, despite their highly touted D&I initiatives, Silicon Valley firms had achieved close to zero progress on diversity. Even worse, these giant organizations said it would take years for things to change notably. Their excuse was that too few qualified women and minorities are available for them to hire.
“Learning to navigate difference is a process, not a one-time event.”
In fact, that’s not the case. The more likely reason is that the typical corporate go-to attitude is to “hire those who look like we do.” The public knows how poorly Silicon Valley firms did in improving their workforce diversity only because civil rights advocates demanded up-to-date data at shareholder meetings.
“Become a cultural detective. Work every day to develop curiosity about difference. You can do this by visiting your local cultural centers to learn about other cultures and people.”
The inclusive diversity problem at US tech firms is repeated at many other companies. After half a century of “laws, policies, regulations and…training programs” developed expressly to eliminate workplace discrimination, such prejudice continues largely unabated. Full diversity and inclusivity in the US workplace remains a pretty much unfulfilled dream.
The primary problem is that D&I regulations and rules don’t address the elephant in the room: the subconscious bias underlying many businesspeople’s assumptions and beliefs about diversity and inclusion. Even with the strong business and moral case for diversity, companies can’t achieve it if their leaders and employees don’t believe in and embrace it. An closed corporate culture – or leaders and workers who oppose or fear equity – will stifle any D&I initiative.
Focus on Behavior, Not Culture
To bring about meaningful D&I change, leaders must focus on changing behavior within their firms instead of trying to change their corporate culture. Think of corporate culture as a fundamental constant such as the speed of light. Nothing can alter such an inviolable constant. Most often, corporate culture is what it is.
“Any company that wants to succeed in creating and sustaining a healthy, diverse, inclusive workforce can do so.”
When executives say, “We need to change the culture around here,” they’re really saying that managers’ and employees’ behavior needs to change. Individual behavior matches accepted organizational norms, which in turn reflect corporate values. If a firm’s values honor diversity and inclusion, that will shape its norms, which influence how employees act. So to change individual behavior – that is, to get employees to accept D&I readily – the CEO and senior executives must steadily, publicly champion diversity and inclusion as foundational components of their personal core values and the basic principles of their organization.
The Diversifly Approach
The Australian firm Diversifly creates virtual reality training programs that educate people about unconscious workplace bias. People who participate in Diversifly programs experience compelling virtual reality scenarios that help them feel compassion and empathy for workers who are different from them. This has proven to be an effective tool for mitigating subconscious bias.
“Gender, race and age are just three of many dimensions of difference; but our physical abilities, sexual orientation…and more all [constitute] the diverse dimensions we have as human beings.”
At Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a white male worker can partake in a singular virtual reality experience in which he transforms into a virtual black male worker or a black female worker – where people treat him as others might treat minority or female workers. The white male worker becomes the aggrieved minority worker and learns from the experience. The rationale behind using virtual reality is the old adage that to learn about someone else’s life, you must walk a mile in his or her (virtual) shoes. Like Diversifly and the Stanford lab, your firm can “leverage augmented reality as a learning tool” to support its D&I objectives.
Achieving inclusive diversity requires a sustained push by senior executives and their designated representatives. To put this effort into action, consider these measures:
- As in all things commercial, reliable D&I metrics are crucial. Conduct a formal survey of your senior managers and employees to measure your existing workforce’s diversity and inclusivity.
- Develop and heed metrics in four areas: 1) “recruitment and representation,” 2) “talent development,” 3) “supplier diversity,” and 4) “workplace climate.” Assess your personnel pipeline; consider your recruiting, new hires, workforce demographics and attrition broken down by race, ethnicity, gender, age, and so on.
- The simpler you keep your metrics, the better. A “one-page dashboard” is best. CEOs and senior executives who must monitor myriad operations and activities will appreciate its easy-to-grasp simplicity.
- Recruit and hire a chief diversity and inclusion officer (CDIO). Look for someone with proven experience in developing and implementing D&I initiatives. The CDIO should report directly to the CEO.
- The CDIO should begin by creating a D&I initiative or action plan with specific targets and goals, including a timetable and targeted completion dates for related activities.
- Construct the strongest possible business case for D&I at your firm. Have the CEO and CDIO jointly present these findings to the board. Ideally, they should demonstrate the positive business results of inclusion and compare those positive findings with the costs of sticking with the status quo.
- Set firm D&I goals for your company – for example, “increase underrepresented minority female hires by 5% within six months.”
- Since D&I can’t succeed in the face of senior managers’ unacknowledged prejudices, the firm needs to diagnose and address influential executives’ hidden biases. Harvard researchers developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures people’s unconscious race, gender and age biases. Use sensitivity in how you approach your senior executives and CEO when suggesting IAT testing.
- If necessary, hire expert consultants to help your executives and employees deal with unconscious bias.
- Because executives must discuss the often-polarizing topics of race and gender with employees, leaders must be effective conflict managers. You can use the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) to assess their conflict management styles.
- Eschew “in-groups” within your organization. The point of such groups always is to exclude others, notably, women, minorities, and so on. Take a long, hard look at your firm’s hiring and retention policies to uncover any lurking prejudices. If you find prejudice, take quick steps to eliminate it. You may need to redo your recruitment, hiring, engagement, and performance management systems and processes. To gain more knowledge, understanding and empathy in relation to employees who are not like you, learn about their traditions, holidays and employee resource groups – also known as “affinity groups.”
- Abandon the “not a fit” excuse for deciding not to hire or to fire a woman, a member of a minority, or other “extraordinary people.”
Diversity and inclusion have been elusive goals for many American firms, though most leaders of US companies are well aware of the solid business value that D&I delivers. Diversity fatigue is quite commonplace today, both inside and outside US companies. But company leaders mustn’t lose faith. Change is possible, though almost always hard-won. To achieve it, senior executives must reorient their thinking and adopt new mental frameworks to understand and eliminate subconscious bias. At the same time, leaders must be creative, bold, innovative risk takers, ready for new ideas and nontraditional approaches. Of course, for US companies to become viable D&I champions, they need unbiased, progressive boards, CEOs and senior leaders.
“People grow to like one another just by being around one another.”
On the positive side, 330 corporate and academic leaders have signed a CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion pledge. These leaders agree to engage actively in the required conversations to make inclusive diversity a reality in their organizations. They also commit themselves to publicizing the successful results of their D&I initiatives. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to ask if you and your firm are ready to join these visionary leaders and commit to inclusive diversity.
About the Author
Barbara Adams, PsyD, is the founder and chief learning officer at GAR (Gender, Age and Race) Diversity Consulting in San Francisco. She holds a doctorate of psychology in organizational development, and she is a former director in the National Diversity & Inclusion office at Kaiser Permanente.
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