In June 2017, 175 CEOs in the US joined forces in a new alliance: CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion. Featuring many of the world’s largest organisations – and businesses such as Walmart, that I have personally worked with – this new alliance is the largest statement to date that global business is now serious about diversity and inclusion.
This public and top-level commitment is vital because at present, there is no law that obliges organisations to be diverse and inclusive. Corporate mandate is essential to change.
The truth is that the legal imperative cannot be the only driver that obliges organisations to be diverse and inclusive. Diversity and inclusion cannot just be an exercise in corporate compliance. It has to affect hearts and minds so that people behave differently towards one another in the workplace, irrespective of the law.
There is of course legislation that addresses discrimination, and in the UK, the Equality Act 2010 is the primary statute that protects individuals in the workplace based on nine protected characteristics that includes race, age, gender, disability and religious belief.
The challenge is that while this legislation enables individuals to take a business to task for discrimination – for example, I was excluded from that training because of my age, or, I did not get that promotion because I was on maternity leave – it does not guarantee nor imply that organisations will be either diverse or inclusive because this requires behavioural change.
I was recently comparing the evolution to best practice in diversity and inclusion with the institutionalisation of health and safety in the workplace over the past 30 to 40 years. Health and safety, which began as an exercise in corporate social responsibility, just like diversity, is now inescapable, enshrined in statute, core to business strategy and the function of every department. Diversity and inclusion is not yet there.
Partly this is due to a raft of detailed legislation and the result is that health and safety is now ingrained in business operations as well as business culture. More importantly though the message relates to all of us.
Businesses now recognise that the health and safety of people is critical to success, and this is so fundamental to belief that it starts to extend to new areas automatically.
Ben Congleton, CEO of Palo Alto firm Olark Live Chat recently earned global praise when his positive response to an employee telling her team that she was taking two days off for mental health reasons went viral. He wrote, ‘I cannot believe this is not standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.’
While the business benefits of diversity and inclusion – even the ROI of diversity and inclusion – are increasingly familiar through studies and case studies from the world’s most respected and august bodies, it is still a long way from being the norm for most organisations.
At GDP, we predict that it will take more initiatives such as the call to action from 175 CEOs in the USA backed up by further shifts in legislation to turn a similar dial on diversity and inclusion and ensure that it becomes embedded in the corporate mind-set.
The challenge is that many of the factors that stop organisations from being both diverse and inclusive are hidden beneath the surface and can be hard to identify, let alone change.
“We recruit women but they never seem to apply for promotion.”
“We post job recruitment ads all over the internet but somehow we always seem to get white male applicants from Russell Group or Ivy League universities.”
We hear these types of statements from lots of companies that are genuinely making an effort to be truly open to all but are finding that it’s harder to do this than they may think. The intention to be diverse and inclusive is there. But the real steps to achieve it can be elusive and surprising.
One key reason for this is unconscious bias, a human trait that we all share, and which means that we tend to gravitate to people, practices and processes that we know and understand.
It’s the reason why at a networking event, men tend to talk to men and women to women. Because this is our comfort zone. We use likability and trust which is often linked to our affinity bias to identify more with and gravitate towards those who belong in our inner circle than those who don’t.
This behaviour doesn’t help business – it doesn’t even help these individuals to progress are far as they could.
But it is human nature and we can’t help it.
And it is precisely the reason why organisations need help to ensure their journey to successful diversity, inclusion and bias reduction is as quick and pain free as possible while being authentic, action-orientated and sustainable overtime.
Through a process of research, diagnosis, facilitation, training, communications and de-bias of organisational policies, processes and practices, businesses can identify simple and effective strategies that genuinely drive diversity and inclusion.
This could be by building relationships with a wider group of universities, publishing job ads in new locations – or making a point of speaking to talented female employees when a promotion is posted to encourage them to apply.
CEO endorsement for diversity and inclusion change programmes is critical. I cheered when I read that 175 CEOs in the US had all signed up to an alliance. I am excited that corporates are committing to action.
However, there needs to be buy-in from the whole organisation or the initiatives will not succeed as well.
Here middle managers are key – we actually need a middle managers’ alliance as much as a CEO alliance for diversity and inclusion to become general business practice! The ‘permafrost’ in the middle needs to be incentivised and motivated to take part in the journey to inclusion and see the benefits.
With a raised eyebrow, rolling eye-balls, a forced smile, or a muttered “humph”, managers through organisational layers can quickly dilute the impetus of any corporate initiative.
This is where I would say more incentives, legislation, benchmarking, audit and scrutiny could potentially help. Perhaps organisations need sticks and carrots as much as individuals do in order to fully benefit from changes that make business and ethical sense.