How to Start a Conversation With Your Boss About Increasing Workplace Diversity

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Although C-suite executives are paid to lead others through the difficult landscape of business, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, those who need to change are often –you guessed it – the C-suite leaders themselves. How can those of us who seek change in our organizations make a compelling case to our leadership that increasing workplace diversity is good for everyone concerned?

The fact is, equality is good for people and for business. Here are four ideas for starting the conversation in a way your leaders will understand and appreciate:

1. ‘We’ll Attract and Keep More Great Employees If Our Culture Is More Inclusive’

Replacing employees is expensive and time-consuming, and one of the last things companies want is that revolving door whereby diverse talent specifically seems to be leaving a particular business unit or leader in large numbers. Given how difficult it is to source talent in the first place, it’s especially expensive to lose it and, of course, demoralizing to see it lost.

2. ‘We’re Feeling Pressure From the People, Customers/Clients, and Partners We Do Business With’

Increasingly, in every bid released to procure goods and services (often called “requests for proposals, or “RFPs”), the company doing the buying asks questions about the bidder’s diversity metrics, programs, and progress in the bidding process. More and more buyers want to see evidence of organizational commitment and some traction on diversity among the suppliers and partners they evaluate. Sales might be won or lost on the ability of the company doing the pitching to answer questions about its own internal commitment to diversity.

When bidders have no program to describe – and certainly when they bring an all-white, all-male sales team to the RFP presentation meeting – we have seen it concretely hurt their prospects for winning the business. Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer appeared on CNN in 2015, and while discussing Sam’s Club’s commitment to diversity, she explained that she talks directly to current and would-be Sam’s Club suppliers about diversity and gives them feedback when they send all-white, all-male teams to meetings: “Every now and then you have to nudge your partners. You have to speak up and speak out. And I try to use my platform for that. I try to set an example.”

Given that it so tangibly hurts the bottom line, it can be motivational for companies – and especially the C-suite – to understand the potential financial penalties for inaction.

umbrella3. ‘Our Demographic Makeup Doesn’t Always Reflect the Markets We Serve’

The need to reflect your market’s demographics can be a powerful impetus for a diversity and inclusion initiative. In the past, companies have unwittingly created insensitive products or taken insensitive approaches to new markets. This is particularly easy to do if the members of the leadership team – and the layers of direct reports beneath them – are principally white; principally men; principally very similar in education, background, and experience to one another; and likely not reflective of a particular target customer community.

Nike, for instance, infamously had to recall thousands of products when a decoration intended to resemble fire on the back of its shoes resembled the Arabic word for “Allah.” Mexican billboards allegedly printed a translation of Frank Perdue’s tagline, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” to read, “It takes a sexually stimulated man to make a chicken affectionate.”

4. ‘Our Senior Leadership and/or Our Board Doesn’t Reflect the Rest of Our Workforce’

Not seeing yourself and people who share your identity – however you define it – reflected in leadership roles at the company you work for can cause pain, frustration, and disengagement. Promising employees who look at the org chart and don’t see themselves wonder whether there is a path to leadership open to them. Employees who crave seeing others of their heritage or background in leadership positions seem to be looking for reasons to stay, and the organization should bend over backward to provide those reasons – or risk losing them.

The ability to lead inclusively is a top competency for leaders now and will continue to be so in the future. From the factory floor to the executive suite, all have a role to play and must stand up and get involved in the best inclusion efforts. It’s the right thing – and the smart thing – to do.

Jennifer Brown is a global authority on workplace diversity. Her forthcoming book,Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change,connects the dots between our diversity stories and our collective ability to influence organizations, one voice at a time. 

By Jennifer Brown