Many people eager to make their workplaces more ‘diverse’ have felt the allure of using the business case when pushing for change. The diversity that delivers value to a business is broadly defined, according to McKinsey, who have been leading the charge on this for over a decade, as “a greater proportion of women and a more mixed ethnic and cultural composition in the leadership of large companies”. I can confirm that not only doesn’t the business case work in driving change, but it is a narrative that is bankrupt if we want to design an inclusive future with any integrity at all. Here is why.

Hanna Naima McCloskey
Jun 19 · 8 min read

What about white people?

If it’s so important for there to be a business case for groups of people before they can be deemed worthy of being hired and promoted in our companies, why are there no reports and research about the business case for white people? Or men? If we were really being rigorous about who we should and shouldn’t have in our businesses wouldn’t we want to ensure that we have solid grounds to hire white people and men too? After all, doing good business means rationally scrutinising the facts of the matter such that if there is an opportunity to get rid of dead wood, we should. Maybe the research would tell us that we shouldn’t hire white people. Maybe the research would tell us that we could make more money if white people weren’t in our workplaces. Why aren’t companies investing time and resources commissioning this research?! This could be the next best thing for their bottom line!

You might be reading this and be feeling agitated because “this isn’t what we meant by establishing a business case”. Perhaps you’re yelling “our business case was framed in the positive”, in a way that’s like “people of colour and white women are GOOD for business and we are showing that they are”.

That may be how you feel, but it’s not quite so when we dig deeper. By conducting research to prove that minoritised groups should be hired into leadership roles – we are accepting the grounds that perhaps they shouldn’t. The only reason you need to prove something is if there is a feeling it could go the other way.

And of course that is why such research is done. Because there are people (like loads of them) who don’t believe that those who aren’t men, white, non-disabled, cis, hetero, middle class – should be involved in their organisations.

And therefore, the reason no one is commissioning research to determine the business case for white people, or men people, for example, in our workplaces is because these groups are understood as our organisational default; our de facto “control group”; and the gold standard against which others must be measured. They have to be in the workplace otherwise how would we know how others compare? This is the dangerous logic we are implicitly perpetuating when we use the business case.

“It’s the only way!” folks tells us. It is not. And we cannot.

Why? Because the means must justify the ends.

The means must justify the ends.

If the starting point is that you need to prove your humanity, this is a workplace that doesn’t see you as human. What sort of starting point is that for so called “inclusion”?

Who benefits from this business case?

In all the discussions around the business case for “diversity” (the increases in return on equity, productivity, EBIT margin, return on investments, innovation), who benefits from all these improvements is rarely explicitly articulated. The benefits are assumed to be shared amongst “everyone”. However, we know that when minoritised/under-represented/marginalised people are included in working contexts where they are the minority, their experience is often emotionally stressful, tiring and toxic from navigating the dominance of privileged and majority identities. The business case is predicated on solely increasing representation: “add in minoritised people and EBIT margin growth will follow”! When this is the diversity framework, and when we talk about the business benefit of diversity, we might actually be saying that there is a benefit to the organisation at the expense of the well being of the marginalised/under-represented employee. Or we could put it another way: add in under-represented people irrespective of the impact of the status quo working environment on them.

As such, the only thing we can say is that if this “business case” benefit is valid, the beneficiaries are those who hold power in these institutional contexts (shareholders, executives who aren’t suffering a pay gap etc). Those with such institutional power are overwhelmingly white, men, middle class, non-disabled etc. The business case therefore prioritises beneficial material outcomes for those who already benefit from the status quo.

The business case therefore prioritises beneficial material outcomes for those who already benefit from the status quo.

Inclusion – at least in our framework at Fearless Futures – is about shifting who we prioritise within our organisations (both interpersonally and in our design decisions at scale) so that we prioritise those who have been historically and remain presently marginalised.

Interestingly, no one advocates for greater “diversity” in the contexts of low-paid work.

No one says “we need more white people” to be cleaners in our hospitals to generate more profitable outcomes for cleaning companies. Such a notion would be widely seen as preposterous. Cleaning work, alongside care work, security, the work of catering staff in schools and hospitals, is low paid in order to make these companies profitable. In the context of low-paid work (depending on the political environment) some people are more than happy for marginalised folks to do this low paid labour, where people deploy the “well none of ‘our own’ will do it” hypothesis. This response to marginalised folks (migrants, people of colour) in low paid work is revealing.

It’s revealing because the “well none of ‘our own’ will do it” line of thinking does not apply to high status roles and would be absurd if used in this context. No one says: ‘Executive team of an investment bank? None of our own will do a job like that. We need a person of colour in the role’. In fact, it’s the opposite. High status and important roles are by definition for ‘our own’, that is, white people, in the contexts of America and Western Europe, though ‘our own’ could equally be a metaphor for any privileged identity.

Low status and low paid work in material reality and in our collective imagination is designated for particular groups of people. High status and high paid work in material reality and in our collective imagination is designated for particular groups of people. The business case does nothing to dismantle this binary. It simply includes a caveat: minoritised and marginalised people can only be permitted into high status work when they will disproportionately improve financial outcomes for those who naturally belong in high status work.

Narratives around the “business case” are also dehumanising.

Dehumanising because they suppose that one’s gender, race, sexuality, disability etc will deliver benefits to the bottom line precisely because of its marginality, under-representendness or minoritised status (after all, isn’t that the definition of a ‘diverse person’?). Further this under-representedness is only of use in work within the logic of the business case if the person can “outperform”. Failing, taking risks that don’t pay off, or just being neutral for the group are not an option because then you aren’t a good investment after all. Instead, marginalised peoples’ inclusion is conditional on delivering some magical extra value to the company and team mates that emerges out of the ‘essence’ of inequality they experience. This renders marginalised people superhuman and in so doing, is essentialising, objectifying and dehumanising. People aren’t really advocating for your humanity if it’s happening in dehumanising ways. And so ultimately, within this business case logic, the pain and trauma of oppression somehow gets reinvented and repackaged into profit for shareholders (even in cases where the oppression was initiated by the pursuit of profit). Oppression – a process that includes exploitation – gets in turn exploited for business owners’ gain.

What if the “economics don’t add up” for some people?

Now to a further question: What about if in order to work at your company a person requires the company to spend money to enable the person’s safety and dignity and access? What about the “expenses” that need to be spent because your office doesn’t have a ramp, or an induction loop or doesn’t use brail labels or have an elevator or gender neutral toilets? Will that put you down on the supposed return you’re meant to deliver for the first quarter? Do you need to work even harder than you already are in a world not designed for you to get back up to neutral or profitability even?

You might say this is extreme and no one really means this. But this is the subtext of the business case narrative and paradigm. We can’t say we want to use it to make our workplaces more inclusive, and then turn away when we don’t like its logics, conclusions and implications.

Finally, if the business case worked, why hasn’t ‘diversity’ prevailed?

Adding under-represented folks to companies that are otherwise dominated by men, white, non-disabled, heterosexual, middle class people positively transforms the bottom line. Top-quartile companies on executive-level gender diversity worldwide had a 21 percent likelihood of outperforming their fourth-quartile industry peers on EBIT margin? Wow. Shareholders should be chomping at the bit! Given the impact of both women and ethnic minorities in executive roles to the bottom line, you’d think there would be more black women, indigenous women and women of colour on company boards – then you get double the bang for your buck, right?

And yet, this hasn’t happened.

In fact, McKinsey, who have been churning out reports proclaiming the benefits since 2007, themselves do not have women in senior roles at the same rates as men, hence their 23.8% gender pay gap (this is for 2018, their 2019 data isn’t on the government website yet).

The ‘business case’ evidently does not drive accelerated or more powerful outcomes for marginalised people.

And at the same time, the business case maintains dangerous logics about marginalised people. When inclusion must be about unconditionally restoring people’s humanity because it was stripped of them, we cannot do it in dehumanising ways.

It is visionary not to concede to mainstream, ineffective and dehumanising arguments and cases. When we are visionary we shift the paradigm of the conversation. When we are visionary, our effort is built on strong foundations. When we are visionary the means justify the ends.

The business case is bankrupt. Disinvest.

Fearless Futures

Engaging people in critical thought to understand and challenge the root causes of inequities, and growing powerful new leadership and design for transformative change.

Hanna Naima McCloskey

Written by

CEO @ Fearless Futures. Educator. Innovator. Design for Inclusion.

Fearless Futures

Engaging people in critical thought to understand and challenge the root causes of inequities, and growing powerful new leadership and design for transformative change.

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