Whether you love it or hate it, the Business Case for Diversity is a popular topic right now. I’ll divulge my own take on the idea at the end of this article. But first, let’s break down the premise--like most topics housed within the DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging) umbrella, many people use the phrase differently.
We’ve got the transactional model:
Add non-male, non-white people and get new ideas that lead to profit.
We’ve got the people and culture model:
Be inclusive or perish.
We’ve got the neo-justice model:
A business is only as good as it is inclusive. It’s 2021, fool, get with the program.
We’ve got the virtue-signaling model:
Look how woke we are! Please do business with us, Gen Z!
We’ve got the abundance model:
There’s money to be made everywhere. Why would we keep peoples, cultures, or their money out? Let’s have a Henry Ford-esque system where our employees can afford our products.
We’ve got the Social Impact model:
New policy and governance are coming whether we like it or not. Let’s scoop ‘em and be a lean, mean Social Impact Machine so no regulator can touch us.
The thing is, these are all relevant, albeit for very different reasons. So not only are we all using the phrase “The Business Case for Diversity” differently, we’re not even talking about the same desired outcomes. And while every human system (aka company) needs to develop its own internal success metrics, we need some kind of common language to help improve how we do business. We can’t learn and grow if we can’t see where we are. The Business Case for Diversity is a great reflection tool to help us answer:
What’s the gap between where we are and where we intend to be?
What operational and strategy habits create our current reality?
How are our decisions about employee lifecycle, compensation, retention, and whose contributions prioritized as creating the culture that we have?
But, let’s be honest, there’s a grotesque side to The Business Case for Diversity as well. Talking about it isn’t dirty--We’re not going to improve unless we address everything, including the parts we prefer to ignore.
For one, why are we still asking about diversity in relationship to business rather than to culture? Business development is important for companies, but it's not separate from company culture.
This isn’t a semantic distinction: It’s possible to increase money while decreasing company value. For example, chattel slavery creates plenty of money but an immeasurably giant deficit of value. We can create profit without creating even a little value because we cannot create value when we subjugate, abuse, and hoard. The distinction is between amounts of money generated and value-added.
And adding value is all about caring for human systems. When we use the word “diversity” (aka non-same-ness) as a euphemism for identities such as race or gender, we’re avoiding the actual humans we work with. Diversity doesn’t magically happen because someone has more melanin in their skin or doesn’t appear male/gender conforming. Diversity is the result--the symptom--of a healthy human system with nuanced mechanisms for supporting humans.
Health, much to our chagrin, requires moderate discomfort. Dynamic tension is rocket fuel for companies. If you don’t want to take my word for it, check out the brilliant work of late professor Katherine W. Phillips whose legacy we can all learn from. There’s no one right way but I’ll go through a few concrete steps to support productive tension in a moment.
But first, let’s ask, if “business case” isn’t a euphemism for profit or money, what are we getting at? Or, put another way, why do businesses exist?
Do companies exist to enact the CEO’s vision?
Do companies exist to create products for the greater good?
Do companies exist because enough people are earning enough of a paycheck and no one’s bothered to suggest maybe it’s time to call it quits? Every system eventually ends, after all.
Why does your company matter? Who and what does your company serve?
As much as I love to grab a glass of wine and talk existentialism, I’m not asking these questions for philosophical kicks. Seriously, what’s your business’ why… and why is that why now? We’ve all seen TV shows on season 13 that should have stopped at season 4 and (judge me if you must), I’m way more delighted by Kobra Kai than I ever was with the original Karate Kid. If a company exists just to exist, it’ll inherently have a value proposition problem.
Once we’ve established why this business and why now, we can get back to the core question:
If diversity is one symptom of a healthy human system, how do we design for a healthier system?
Here are 4 specific actions. Then we’ll get into why this whole thing is tied to COVID.
Dialogue: It probably comes as no surprise that humans require productive dialogue to learn and grow. The brain simply cannot absorb culture shifts through memos or info. What makes dialogue so special is that it relies on mild discomfort, where everyone is required to disclose confusions, fears, expectations, stories, habits, and the general ways that we conform to preconceived ideas. If this sounds terrifying and like it has no place in business, rest assured that it only works well when led by someone with a lot of practice.
As the movies say, do NOT try this at home.
But even more, if it sounds terrifying, consider: is it really more terrifying than continuing with business as usual when “as usual” is about adding money and not value?
Psycho-social upskilling: Whether you want to call this coaching or performance development, or Agile relational expertise, companies require strong teaming and collaboration to do world-class work. A far cry from conflict resolution, relational prowess isn’t about consensus or agreement. Let go of getting along and embrace productive disagreement.
Research & Development: We all know that groupthink is bad for product innovation. In an era of copy/waste culture, cutting-edge R&D isn't just about who’s in the room, but about the ability to facilitate, project-manage, and deliver on new ideas.
Employee lifecycle: With companies tripping over each other to recruit more women and people of color, there’s an awful lot of forgetting to take lived experience into account. Are you looking for a white, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical male who simply looks like a female of color? Seeking race and gender diverse staff means seeing people for who they are, not getting your headcount up.
And then, proving to your “diverse” staff why they should stick with you. Are you going to compensate, promote, and appreciate robustly?
Now for the awkward part.
If differences in perspective, varieties in experience, and highly heterogeneous workplaces are undisputably better for business, the only reason to segregate is because there’s an emotional correlation between non-male and non-white with “impure.” It doesn't matter how profound the addition of women and people of color is if there’s a subconscious belief that they’ll contaminate the system.
Let’s take a moment to learn from The Sum of Us, released Feb 202. Author Heather McGhee shows us how white people and historically white institutions (schools, businesses, public amenities) suffer when they’re not inclusive--She shows how segregation is about fear of contamination. And the self-harm inflicted when non-white, non-male is considered “impure” to the point that it’s better to close everything down rather than risk “infection”.... COVID is perhaps the best moment to see the power of contamination fears.
So to see what’s blocking work integration, let’s try changing the phrasing
“Is there a business case for diversity?”
“What are we preserving by not integrating?”
“what do we think we’re sacrificing by integrating?”
“Purity,” of course, is mythology, whether Aryan propaganda or Drago Malfoy making fun of Hermione Granger for being a Mudblood. The concept that a human being could be “less than” is a useful trick for supremacist regimes and cartoon bad guys.
But actual disease is real: we can infect one another with COVID-19 and we can measure whether that’s happened or not--actual contagion is measurable and manageable. “Impurity” is literally a figment of the imagination.
So when we consider diversity at work, what we’re really asking about is who we should “let in” our companies. Is your company going to be intelligently permeable? Or will you be a relic in an airtight container?