Bursting the Diversity Bubble

There's been a lot of press recently about "diversity initiatives" not netting corporations any significant gains in their workforce recruitment and/or retention numbers.

If you're a professional working in the diversity sector, whether organizationally or as a consultant, this (and what I'm about to say) is likely not news to you.

- - Diversity matters, but only to the extent it matters. - -

If a company's diversity numbers are bottom-heavy - that is, if their non-white and/or non-male hires exist nearly exclusively at the lower ends of pay scale, influence, and decision-making - then from an organizational perspective, that "diversity" doesn't really matter. At least, it doesn't matter in the sense that it has a meaningful effect on the culture or trajectory of that company.

And, the narrative is really clear here - when "diverse hires" occupy obviously non-influential roles, and when there are not clear and present avenues to pursue more influential roles, ideally with other non-majority employee success stories, those "diverse hires" are likely not long for that company.

There's a layered reality here: you need to hire in a more diverse workforce, true, but you also need to retain it, and advance it. It can turn into a chicken and egg problem; do you hire and hope to develop better retention policies? Do you create clear avenues of advancement, and then look to hire? Can you do all three at once?

One thing is clear, though, and that's that "diversity" is likely not the word most important to your company. Inclusion is. Diversity refers simply to the existence of difference, and, based on how widely you're willing to interpret that definition, you may already have a really diverse workforce, at least along some parameters.

However, if you don't create a culture in which those differences thrive, in which diversity has the space to fully display its variances, you'll never be able to effectively and productively integrate widely diverse peoples into your workforce. And, in the end, you'll stunt your company's growth because of it.

That's where inclusion comes in. Inclusion is a set of strategies and policies housed in a corporate culture that all work together to make sure that all are included.

As Joe Gerstandt, a diversity consultant, says,

Diversity is about the ingredients, the mix of people and perspectives. Inclusion is about the container—the place that allows employees to feel they belong, to feel both accepted and different. You need a group of people who think differently—in a container that's safe to share those differences.

In the next 25 years or so, the US will be the first majority minority country in the world. This means that an increasing number of your employees, and your customers, will be non-white. If you haven't developed appropriate and effective policies and company culture by then, you won't just be missing from the "Best of..." lists, you'll more than likely be in survival mode.

Another way to think about the relationship between diversity and inclusion is this: if diversity is the spark for greatness, then you'll need kindling (short-term retention policies/culture) to keep it alive through its tender years, and substantial heartwood (long-term advancement avenues) to fuel its sustained growth and development.

Otherwise, the spark dies.

Terry Morreale, chief technology officer at the National Center for Women & Information Technology, puts it this way:

...once you’ve embraced the idea of inclusion, you need to incorporate it. You need to embed it into your business process, in the corporation. It’s not necessarily just a new person at the table but it must be built into the company’s DNA.

Whatever you call it (empathy, inclusion, equity, etc), it needs to matter. You can't say that you're adding more voices to the table unless you're actually bringing more voices to the table. Diversity doesn't matter unless you make it matter.

The gains are there, and real, when inclusion works. Research shows us that diverse teams, both along the lines of men-to-women ratios, and in terms of color, to name a couple of examples, are functionally more productive, creative and profitable than non-diverse teams.

Why?

For both the obvious reason, and the not-so-obvious one. For one, team members with diverse experiences and perspectives bring those diverse experiences and perspectives to bear on problem-solving and innovation. This means there are more ideas floating around the table, which often results in a movement away from an organization's easy go-to answers, which may be becoming increasingly irrelevant in an increasingly diverse environment.

Two, when there are diverse perspectives represented at the table, we assume those perspectives will bring new and challenging ideas into the conversation. Therefore, we up our game. Much of the increase in innovation around diversity is often attributed to the increase in individuals' expectations of themselves in that setting. We're better when we're invested in working with a diverse workforce, where every opinion matters, and every voice is included.

Diversity matters, yes. But companies need to develop strategies that take into account historic under-representations, educational unbalances, language barriers, the disparate effect of last-in-first-out tendencies, and a host of other challenges to ensure that the diversity within their workforces becomes a meaningful and integral part of the company at every level.

Companies need to ensure that they're not chasing diversity as some kind of end-goal.

That bubble will burst.