If your boss is still asking about the “business case” for diversity, your company’s in trouble

It baffles me how many times I still get asked, “can you help me convince my executive team on the business case for diversity?” Or “what’s the ROI of diversity and inclusion?”

Proving the business case has become a standard hoop to jump through to get approved for D&I programming budget held hostage by an executive who leans back and asks, “prove to me this is worth it.”

You know what’s interesting? No one’s ever assigned me that kind of research project when I was an executive coach for OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), a business goal setting methodology. In fact, C-level executives threw money at me to share pretty straight forward goal setting best practices.

We understand intuitively that setting good goals and achieving business alignment will help companies perform better. But for some reason, having a workplace culture that enables all people to bring their full potential doesn’t appeal to as many executives as SMART goals do.

Cue skeptical interview resembling a Shark Tank episode.

I honestly can’t understand how and why people still feel they don’t have enough evidence. Literally, just Google “business case for diversity” and you will get decades, yes, decades, worth of research proving how diversity and inclusion boost financial performance, innovation, market share, team collaboration, and more (to save all of us additional labor, I aggregated all kinds of research data proving the benefits of D&I in a separate post).

As a D&I professional, I began questioning leaders who still need convincing.

When executives, or worse, people who are in charge of D&I, ask that question during a program proposal, I flag the deal. Because my experience tells me anyone who questions the “business case” for D&I is likely not ready to commit to the hard work required to cultivate a diverse and inclusive workplace. I can project, with a degree of certainty, we’ll spend countless hours revising the proposal and proving the business case using the most compelling evidence, only to be left hanging while they “finalize their company priorities.”

Call it willful ignorance, denial, or even a convenient excuse to delay the actual work — whatever it is, I stopped prioritizing companies that come to me to assign me this superfluous research project. Respectfully, I’m reclaiming my time.

Thankfully, there are enough business leaders who take D&I work seriously that I do not need to waste my time trying to convince them D&I deserves some of their holiday party budget.

Now, I’m not arguing we disregard D&I related research or data. Data is important and the “business case” has served us well. Knowing diversity and inclusion boost financial performance, innovation, market share, team collaboration, and more…this information has played a critical role in advancing many D&I initiatives and paved ways for future ones (we still have a lot of work to do in quantifying inclusion and measuring the efficacy of various D&I initiatives, but we’re getting there).

But I’m afraid too many companies are hiding behind this decades-old question to delay the work that needed to begin a decade ago or that need to continue. We’re wasting too much time trying to convince those who don’t have the desire to be convinced.

Time after time, research has proven facts and data don’t actually change people’s minds. Passionate D&I advocates have been refining, rephrasing, and retelling the business case for D&I decades, but the reality is, this “good for business” business case has not moved enough companies to take action beyond slapping on a feel-good marketing slogan. There’s not enough urgency or long-term commitment to creating and sustaining diversity and inclusion.

Why?

Because “Diversity and Inclusion” is hard. It is not the easy way:

  1. Diversity creates discomfort: Diverse teams work smarter and innovate better because of the inherent discomfort and friction diversity creates. Differences make us question our own biases and others’, rely on objective facts, and process decisions more rigorously.
  2. Inclusion requires more variables and destandardization: to create a workplace inclusive for everyone, you have to deviate from what is considered the “norm” because the norm was created with the dominant group in mind. This means, for example, providing flexible work arrangements, varied working conditions accessible to all, and benefits that truly benefit everyone.
  3. D&I is a long-term game and it’s hard to quantify progress: Investing in D&I often doesn’t show immediate result. It’s not easy to measure progress, either. ROI of a well-run employee resource group? Or that cool LGBTQ lunch & learn panel? Tough to measure quantitatively. There certainly is no “silver bullet” to “fixing” companies’ diversity or inclusion gaps.

What’s easier is creating a homogeneous group of people who think similarly, enjoy similar things, work similar hours, and don’t make each other uncomfortable. What’s easier is providing standardized working hours and working conditions, streamlined benefits, and sticking to the “default” ways of being.

While homogeneity may not lead to the level of innovation Harvard Business Review links to diverse teams, it can lead to a well-oiled machine of like-minded people and enjoyable working environment for those in the homogeneous group. And this may not be that bad of an alternative to those who belong already.

This is the tricky thing about “doing the right thing.” Often times, there is little to no immediate incentive for those in positions of power to change, to opt-in to walk the tougher path. People who benefit from the current “default” state need to be motivated to put in the extra effort to change the norm to benefit all people.

The “good for business” business case fails to elicit the level of commitment we need to see from leaders to move the needle. When you are solely focused on efficiency and profitability, “diverse and inclusive workplace” may not give you a quick enough solution.

Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace requires a multi-pronged, iterative, and long-term strategy. It takes real commitment to continue what sometimes could feel like an endless journey. Sometimes you’ll take one step forward and three steps back. You’ll need to constantly reevaluate your approach because the world of D&I is constantly changing (and it always will).

If you’re only focused on the quantifiable ROI of D&I, it’s not going to be enough to fuel this long term battle. You’ll end up looking for that “checklist” that merely gets you to comply with what’s minimally required. You’ll treat D&I as a crisis prevention strategy.

It’s like going on a crash diet to see a different number on a scale, but not really changing your overall lifestyle. The scope of your goal is too narrow and your vision limited. To achieve lasting change, you have to focus on something bigger than what you can measure in the short-term.

McKinsey & Company, in its 2013 report “Lessons from the leading edge of gender diversity”, noted that CEOs of companies most successful at creating gender diversity have been committed to the cause at a much more personal level, with a passion that “goes well beyond logic and economics.” They summarize that “numbers matter, but belief makes the case powerful.”

CEOs of companies most successful at creating gender diversity have been committed to the cause at a much more personal level, with a passion that “goes well beyond logic and economics.”

What we need is for leaders to be inspired beyond, or in addition to, the business case to invest in D&I. To fuel long-term commitment, we need them to believe having a diverse and inclusive team is mission-critical and is the right thing to do.

If anyone is still asking for the “business case” of D&I, there’s no shortage of data you can use to prove it’s the smart thing to do. However, I challenge you to peel back and find the real reason behind the question: is it simply a lack of awareness? Or is it a convenient way to delay the work while sending you on a wild-goose chase?

You may be up against an entirely different battle if it’s the latter.

And lastly, we compiled all the data you need to put together the D&I “business case” pitch deck. For the love of sweet baby goddess, stop wasting your precious time doing research that’s been done too many times before.

Go to: Compilation of Diversity & Inclusion “Business Case” Research Data


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About Michelle Kim

Michelle is an entrepreneur, activist, speaker, and writer passionate about empowering individuals and organizations to create positive change. She is the Co-founder and CEO of Awaken, a leading provider of experiential and modern Diversity & Inclusive workshops and Modern Manager™ training.