Why the business case for DEI is no business case at all

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By Nate Vaughn

Few things in life are ever cut-and-dried. Most often personal or professional challenges are blurry, hard to decipher and fall short of a single answer or route. There is no one way of doing things “right” – and “right” is often subject to interpretation. The road to get “there,” wherever “there” is, is often a labyrinth with unexpected curves and bumps and is seldom linear. Shades of grey infiltrate every decision and each decision demands strategic, critical thinking.

The same can be said for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts in business. If they aren’t executed with the right intention and in a conscientious way, they have the potential to alienate the very people a company is trying to attract and retain.

The case for no case

DEI strategy is often borne out of an organization’s reasoning behind building and implementing a DEI program.

There are myriad motivations an organization may have when creating a DEI program. Businesses may want to:

  • outperform less diverse peers and deliver positive returns to shareholders
  • increase employee job satisfaction and trust in the organization
  • support social justice causes
  • address unconscious bias
  • resolve a settlement decree with the EEOC or other regulatory agency
  • “do the right thing”

The path to DEI program implementation likely won’t follow a straight line. There will be stops and starts, wins and setbacks. The ability to set challenges aside and continue to move forward is critical.

Understanding the rationale behind creating DEI programs can be helpful. A recent Harvard Business Review article takes a critical look at the typical ways companies implement DEI using three strategies:

  1. Justifications are made to demonstrate how the program will positively impact the bottom line by attracting prospective employees, retaining current team members, or bringing new customers in the door.
  2. The empathetic or fairness policy supports creating programs to demonstrate an affinity with a marginalized group.
  3. DEI programs are viewed simply as an expectation; like being honest or helping others.

The Harvard Business Review authors found that prospective team members have strong feelings about each of the above methods and the way organizations characterize the programs. “Clearly, despite ostensibly positive intentions, making the business case for diversity does not appear to be the best way to attract underrepresented job candidates — and it may even harm well-represented candidates’ perceptions of a prospective employer as well,” explain Oriane Georgeac and Aneeta Rattan in the Harvard Business Review article.

When DEI programs coalesce, grow and make an impact, there is the potential to drive new job applicants into the pipeline and let customers know that the organization’s values align with their own, which can help with team member and customer retention. While each of the above reasons for building and implementing a DEI program has advantages and disadvantages, an effective DEI program must combine pieces from all three of the strategies outlined in the Harvard Business Review.

Give team members a voice

As I mentioned earlier, there is no single path to success when it comes to your personal or professional life and the same is true for implementing DEI programs. Sincerity, commitment and team member involvement will win the day by demonstrating an organization’s commitment. Every DEI program must offer all people a voice and safety within the organization. This can help establish and maintain an inclusive environment throughout the company.

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are not a ‘thing’ like a program, office, or title,” according to Tsedale M. Melaku and Christoph Winkler, who recently published in the Harvard Business Review. “They cannot rest on a single person, initiative, or place.”

Sincere inclusivity must permeate not only from the top-down, but also bottom-up and every layer in between. Not only do employees need to understand an organization’s reason behind DEI programs, but they must trust that the company’s leaders take the programs seriously and support them. Employees need to see their leaders holding themselves accountable to DEI strategies including investing their own time and the organization’s dollars and resources as part of the program. Leaders must walk the walk and talk the talk. Doing only the latter isn’t enough.

“When an organization’s leaders make themselves publicly accountable to the realities of systemic racism and other inequities,” Melaku and Winkler write, “we begin to see metrics and deliverables that target structural change.”

To that end, companies can:

  • Create employee resource groups
  • Encourage volunteerism
  • Support diverse holidays
  • Work with non-profits to support their missions
  • Support social justice initiatives
  • Match employee financial contributions to non-profits

These are just a few efforts that can go a long way toward building and improving DEI programs within the organization. One of the wonderful things about DEI programs is that it allows every organization to personalize and make DEI programs authentic, unique and reflective of company culture. Team members will take notice, for example, when they see the company offering paid time off to volunteer or investing resources to help a non-profit. DEI programs must be a true reflection of the communities and customers that the organization serves.

“Leaders at global organizations are hungry for guidance and eager to take action,” said Lanaya Irvin, Coqual CEO in a news release. “Our new research underscores the importance of collaborating and acting locally and provides actionable ways companies can identify and understand the unique experiences of marginalized groups to achieve greater equity in the workplace.”

The foundation for any DEI business case is quite simple and written by Spike Lee back in 1989: Do the Right Thing. When an organization does the right thing, follows through and builds a well-thought-out and comprehensive DEI program, hiring, retention, improved morale and ROI will fall into place.

Give team members a voice, use pieces from the strategies mentioned earlier that make sense and build the best program you can for your organization.

Nate Vaughn is Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President, Talent Acquisition at Modivcare.


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