While many D&I initiatives begin at a grassroots level among employees, organisational impact is often elusive. Employee networks or resource groups can offer many benefits - from providing a safe space for being authentic, increasing engagement and retention, guiding employees to navigate the “unwritten rules” of a workplace, or shining a light on challenges employees face in the workplace. What people from underrepresented groups can’t do is change the dynamics of the workplace that lead to these situations in the first place.
To change workplace norms requires intentional and coordinated effort - and it needs to be led from the top. Getting senior leadership buy-in for Diversity and Inclusion is critical, if not THE most important step, for making sustainable progress.
Executive championship is not a quick ask, however. Framing the discussion takes careful planning; it requires raising your leaders’ awareness of issues that they probably have not personally encountered. We can’t get on board to address a problem when we don’t know it exists. While leaders support D&I as a concept (who doesn’t think inclusion is a good idea?), they may not realise there is anything in their power to do differently. To get them there, you need to till the soil, so to speak. This means creating curiosity, engaging them in dialogue, and then opening their aperture to the mostly unintentional, systemic inequities that often exist in the workplace.
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 data that may reveal unpleasant truths.
There are four common elements for getting your leaders on board:
Challenge: If your organisation is not “fluent” in diversity and inclusion, you will need to develop a common understanding of what you want to address and why. Many of us make assumptions about what is meant by these terms and our interpretations aren’t always consistent. If we aren’t talking about the same concepts in the same way, we aren’t solving the same problem.
Recommendation: Clarify the meaning of common terms and how those concepts relate to leaders’ business concerns. Let’s start with an analogy to illustrate some key concepts:
Recruiting diverse talent is the very important first step. However, without attention to the experiences of employees once they join your company they may end up leaving the company for opportunities elsewhere, only for you to start the process all over again.
Inclusion is almost there. Even if talent from underrepresented groups feels valued by their team, they may never get to a position of influence and be able to contribute to important decisions and unleash their potential.
By ensuring equitable opportunities for career progression for all employees regardless of background, free from unconscious biases (e.g. in-group bias), you create the foundation for more objective decision making, a stronger competitive edge and maximum business impact.
Let’s explore these terms in more detail:
Diversity is about measuring who is in your company and where - across a range of dimensions. D&I data collection allows your employees to confidentially self-identify across many dimensions, both visible and invisible, that are important to track. A D&I strategy simply focused on hiring talent from underrepresented groups is incomplete. An analytical approach will enable you to take a look at what is happening once employees join your organisation to assess how these groups are progressing through the leadership pipeline of your organisation. This insight gives targeted focus to your strategy with the ability to monitor progress.
Inclusion takes a look at the experiences of employees in the company – this includes day-to-day interactions as well as career experiences. Inclusion ensures that employees feel valued and respected, without having to conform, which allows them to make positive contributions that lead to better results. But an inclusive workplace also ensures that policies and practices provide a level playing field where every employee has the opportunity to develop their full potential.
Equity: The goal of equity is to ensure fairness within your talent management systems and talent decisions. Despite our best intentions to be objective and fair, we are largely unable to identify unconscious bias in our individual interactions and decisions. The right data can reveal macro patterns in the workplace that are often invisible at a more granular level . It is important to layer the concept of equity across your Diversity and Inclusion metrics. Equity in representation (diversity) means analysing whether all groups are moving proportionately through the talent pipeline and indicates fairness in career outcomes. Equity in inclusion means that you try to understand any representation gaps by analysing the patterns of career experiences and opportunities. These patterns can reveal where certain groups may be advantaged or disadvantaged by structures, systems, and patterns of interacting.
Engagement: Is engagement the same thing as inclusion? Your company may conduct an engagement survey. You may even know which groups are more engaged than others. But do you know why that is and what you can do to improve? Engagement creates the conditions in which employees offer more of their capability and potential. Inclusion is the precursor to engagement. Inclusion has been definitively linked to engagement, team performance, and innovation. Once you identify your inclusion challenges and understand how they vary for specific demographic groups and levels, you can impact your business performance. The solutions you introduce will be targeted and measurable.
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 prioritised 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 inequity means 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 favour 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.
Challenge: There is no perfect company or perfect solution when it comes to D&I. And no one ever gets across the finish line. Similar to the concept of innovation, your goal is to keep making progress. Where many companies get bogged down is in trying to find a “silver bullet” or implement too many great ideas after looking at the recommended best practices of other companies. Diluted efforts without a clear understanding of the issues at play will not translate into the progress desired.
While many companies are investing in people analytics, and may have entire teams dedicated to this function, other companies have not yet considered the benefit of D&I analytics. It is more difficult to “sell” a concept when the audience is not currently aware of the need and you may need to define the challenge before your leaders understand the value D&I analytics bring.
Recommendation: D&I analytics enable you to build an internal business case for how D&I impacts your business and provides a targeted approach to strategy. We recommend an iterative process that begins with identifying your company’s gaps and addressing your greatest opportunities first. With each iteration you will identify actionable insights and be more inclusive than you were before, leading to greater diversity across all ranks within the company.
The key to a great strategy is having the data to understand your strengths and challenges, choosing initiatives focused on the root causes of those problem areas, and monitoring the key metrics to track your progress. Here are a few benefits that may be relevant to your leaders, depending on where your company is on its Diversity & Inclusion journey.
Diagnose what is getting in the way of progress so your solutions are addressing the underlying issues rather than symptoms or assumptions.
Challenge: The last step of getting leadership on board is to ask for what you need to make your project successful. The more explicit you are in your ask, the better understanding everyone will have, up front, regarding what is needed to get to impact. In lieu of that, your project becomes simply an exercise of collecting interesting information that the company is not prepared to act on. If your employees go to the trouble of responding honestly about their very real experiences and beliefs, they expect something to change as a result. If you are not prepared to respond to the results with communication and action, you run the risk of undermining your employees’ trust in you.
Recommendation: The “Ask” can be framed in a “What you get” / “What we need” approach; you want to be sure that leaders see the benefits as well as what is required. While this list may seem extensive, your leaders are not required to commit to every suggestion. What is important is that you consider the role of each item and make a conscious decision about what you can commit to and the impact of those decisions.