Getting Leaders on Board with Diversity and Inclusion

Whether the aim of your leadership conversation is budget approval or D&I championship, we have suggestions on how to frame the discussion.


Getting Leaders on Board with D&I: 

Addressing Uncertainty

Go in knowing that conversations around diversity and inclusion can be uncomfortable. The best advice is to frame the conversation as an opportunity. If your leaders are willing to engage in this conversation, applaud them for their curiosity when they want to learn more about the topic, to understand what factors could be at play, and for their courage in taking an honest look at truths that may be uncomfortable. 

Are you prepared to address these common responses we’ve heard from  leaders?

  • I am not sure D&I is a priority issue for the leadership team; we are focused on what’s driving our business performance. 
  • Our workplace is fair and we don’t allow discrimination at our company, so inclusion is not an issue, right?
  • D&I is a difficult and divisive issue. Can we just focus on what unites us rather than what differentiates us from each other?
  • We have invested a lot of money and time already; why does this require further investment?
  • I want to be cautious of the legal risks and liabilities with D&I data. Is the legal team involved?

Address Leadership Uncertainty

Challenge: As you prepare to get leaders on board, it is important to think about the topic from their perspective and come prepared to engage in challenging discussions. If you are lucky, your leadership team understands the business relevance of diversity and inclusion. If your leaders are not there yet, you may need to do some educating about whether the topic is relevant to their work and their business goals. Many people think inclusion is simply about being “nice” and don’t believe it is a topic that should be prioritized by leaders. They will need to believe in the business relevance before they are interested in considering the value of D&I analytics.

There is also the very real risk that your leaders perceive this topic as a question of their personal integrity. Before we understand how systemic inequity works, we tend to believe that the only inequity is intentional discrimination. When we aren’t aware of any negative intentions, it is easy to believe that there aren’t any issues in our company or that there may be isolated egregious situations. If this is the case, prepare for emotional resistance. Your leaders will need to be able to talk about their frustrations and fears before they can move forward. Shutting them down will only prevent any progress you want to facilitate.

There are other more tactical uncertainties. Leaders also need to believe that there is a real opportunity to make progress. Some organisations have invested in D&I previously and have not seen measurable results. They may feel that they already have too much data and just need to get to action. Or they may fear the legal implications of collecting data that is discoverable or that is not compliant with GDPR.

Recommendation: Not many leaders have had experience dialoguing about a sensitive topic outside their areas of expertise. If you prepare for resistance, you won’t take it personally if it occurs. Below are some key challenges our clients have experienced with getting leaders on board and approaches that have worked to facilitate productive discussions.

1. Business Relevance: Many conversations with leaders begin by validating  D&I using research conducted by reputable business analysts. Don’t go overboard on preparing a business case (we have never seen a leadership team jump on board due to this data) but do leverage some of the vast research done on this topic to get your organisation’s attention:

The discussion of diversity and its business benefits has been on the agenda at many companies. The incentive of improved performance is accompanied by pressure to increase the representation of people from underrepresented groups at all levels of the company. This pressure comes from customers, investors, employees and an increasingly diverse talent pool. In today’s business environment, the reputation of your company is impacted by the diversity of your leadership. Find the hook that is most relevant to your business goals and performance.

2. Blame Game: Some leaders may think you are undertaking this assessment to “prove” something. When concepts like unconscious bias are introduced, it is not uncommon for people to interpret this as blame for problems that don’t seem like their fault. For those who have experienced the workplace as fair, it is easy to believe that it is fair for everyone; it may seem like there is nothing within your control that can be done to address lower levels of diversity at the top. However, just because you haven’t been intentionally exclusive doesn’t mean the workplace is inclusive. We know the majority of bias in the workplace results from an unconscious preference for people similar to ourselves rather than bias against someone else. The role of data analytics is one of unbiased assessment. Data may unveil challenges that were previously not on leaders’ radar; it  will help to shine a light on situations where different groups may be having different experiences in the workplace that aren’t related to their ability. Organisations need to examine their data through the lens of equity and inclusion to identify the patterns of workplace experiences and talent decisions; it is only in these patterns that we can identify the challenges to inclusion and make the connection between inclusion and business results. Diffuse resistance by appealing to company values and a belief in fairness. Your people data will provide an objective way to assess whether a company’s intent of an equitable workplace is translating into the expected outcomes. Research shows that having a strong sense of fair play, defined as a strong commitment to the ideals of fairness, was what also best differentiated men who actively championed gender equality from those who were not similarly engaged. When you are able to collect data that can highlight where the playing field in your company may not be level, you then have the power to engage your leaders as champions for D&I. This data shifts blame away from individual leaders intentions to the unintended impact of status quo systems. At the same time, it allows you to identify specific intentional actions and metrics leaders can adopt to hold themselves accountable going forward. A focus on intentional inclusion is very different than feeling accused of intentional exclusion.

3. Diversity Fatigue: Some organisations have invested in D&I previously and have not seen measurable results. They may be sceptical of further investment. In some cases, this is because the focus has been more on diversity than on inclusion. By assessing inclusion, you will be able to identify specific challenges for specific groups that result in lower representation across your pipeline to leadership. In other cases, organisations have not seen progress because there may be too many different and uncoordinated efforts. Your evidence-based approach allows you to measure inclusion more tangibly and to identify actionable insights that can be addressed with recommended practices. This shift allows an organisation to move from a list of activities that will ”hopefully” make an impact to a strategy focused on addressing your greatest opportunities with targeted initiatives. This happens when you can pinpoint specific gaps in inclusion, understand the root causes of why they exist, and intervene with appropriate solutions. Additionally, you will be able to monitor metrics that ensure accountability and assess progress.

4. Data overload: Leaders may doubt the value of additional data. We understand this concern. More data is not necessarily better; it often gets in the way of effective action.  However, we have often seen companies struggle to know what to measure or how to find the story in their data. Your engagement surveys may show that certain groups are more engaged than others. But do you know why? Your workforce representation or Gender Pay Gap data may not be showing progress but do you know where to intervene? Representation is a lagging indicator of workplace inclusion. If you can measure inclusion more directly, you will know what barriers to progress exist and where to take action. Based on our experience with global D&I diagnostics, we know that internal data matters. Leaders who are not motivated by external data have been compelled to action with internal employee data that link inclusion to performance indicators and their own business goals. You can explain the gaps in your workforce data with gaps in inclusion. This allows you to connect where your current workplace culture, policies, and practices can evolve to create opportunities for more inclusive and equitable talent management. If internal data are able to highlight where differences in opportunity, rather than ability, are driving careers it becomes easier to engage leaders in commitment to personal and organisational change.

5. Legal Concerns: In today’s legal climate, leaders are right to be concerned about the legal implications of collecting sensitive information. GDPR has become a top priority for us all. Ensure that your data collection and storage processes are GDPR compliant. The easiest approach is if you avoid collecting any personally identifiable information (PII) and your team sends out an anonymous survey link to your employees. The downside is that you cannot track who has responded and survey reminders will go out to all employees rather than only those who have not yet responded. Another limitation is that you cannot connect your findings to any HR employee data. If you are interested in the power that comes from integrating inclusion data with your internal HR data to analyze how inclusion impacts career development and progression, you will need to connect your internal employee data with your inclusion data. This will require rigorous protocols to maintain confidentiality and privacy that you should discuss with your legal team. Secondly, you will need a concerted effort to establish trust with your employees that this data will only be used to their benefit and will be limited to HR to measure impact and progress on individual groups. Another concern that some companies have is around collecting data that may be considered “discoverable.” While we are not in the position of providing legal advice and recommend that you discuss this with your legal team, there is a legal precedent in favor of companies that are proactive in assessing equity. Just because you don’t collect the data may not mean you don’t have issues. Many companies (ie. CocaCola, Sodexo, Uber) began their diversity and inclusion work after large, public lawsuits. It is better to get in front of any legal risk and address situations proactively. There are ways to contract the project to limit discoverability.