David M. Helfrich

Client Partner

During a year of massive change, adversity and evolving mandates in 2020, the world of business was reminded about the importance of getting Diversity. Equity & Inclusion right.

It is imperative to integrate a meaningful DE&I strategy, and policies, into organizational structure and corporate culture. The commitment to diversity means cursory and symbolic gestures are no longer enough. Instituting more substantive, structural and fundamental practices to support diversity is key.

In the United States, many companies speak the DE&I lingo. Celebrating Black/Latinx /Native American Heritage month and attending the occasional unconscious bias training seminar. But this is a surface level approach to increasing diversity. It’s far less common to see serious structural commitments to fundamental change with regards to how organizations view and implement DE&I strategies.

Julian Jackson – Director of TA at College Track and Managing Associate at NPAG – explains the danger of not approaching DE&I with a serious commitment:

Shifting the conversation from the representation piece of more diverse spaces – to analyzing what are the systems/structure/processes that can be developed to support professionals to drive this work is paramount. If there’s not a commitment from the top – it can be more damaging to engage in the work than not to. Too often people reach for a brown/black/woman/queer face to foster leadership in big cultural shifts – but then at the same time fail to give them the resources they need to be successful. Julian Jackson – Director of TA at College Track and Managing Associate at NPAG

After a year that saw serious social movements on the ground (BLM, Immigrant justice, Native/Arab-American and Latinx enfranchisement), companies are creating new DE&I roles. Some for the very first time.

However, the ones leading the charge are creating C-level (Chief Diversity Officer) roles where these leaders are empowered with human capital, budgets, and fiscal responsibility to drive a diverse and inclusive workplace as an organizational priority. They even attach it to performance standards and metrics.

There is also a call for Executive leadership at the highest levels of organizations to be actively involved in DE&I. No longer relegating it to a single Diversity professional or HR function.

Data has shown, leadership/executive buy-in can significantly increase the proportion of employees who feel highly included in their company culture and work environment.

DE&I as a profit-driven strategy

McKinsey's 2015 'Why Diversity Matters' report on public companies found that those in the top quartile for gender diversity and ethnic and racial diversity in management were respectively 15% and 35% more likely to have returns above the industry mean.

Their 2018 Delivering Through Diversity update reaffirms these statistics at 21% and 33%, respectively.

Credit Suisse's global analysis of Gender Diversity and Corporate Performance found that organizations with at least one female board member yielded higher net income growth and higher return on equity than those without a woman on the board.

Whilst companies with a more diverse workforce are showing to be more profitable, this shouldn’t be the only driving force for implementing change.

Purely viewing DE&I through a profitability lens can defeat the human-centric utility and value of diversity.

…to treat human beings humanely shouldn’t be about the bottom-line. We shouldn’t prioritize diversity simply because of its profitability. It is important to have diversity within a company as a core principle – not as a bottom-line to improve profits. These are human beings that have been neglected and dehumanized and deserve to have a seat at the table. Ngozi Ofoche, founder of Black Women In Product (BWIP)

Perhaps instead of focusing just on what the business case is for Diversity, the conversation should be steered to understanding Diversity as the case for business as a core principle.

Ofoche founded Black Women In Product to provide community and chronicle her journey in Product Management. She also highlights the importance of broadening the scope of thought leadership, interview styles/approaches and inclusivity in the Tech sector.

“Within the tech/product interviewing process, there is a narrow scope of thought leadership whereby ideas are sourced from just a few books, perpetuating inherent bias within the industry to where I contemplated dropping out of the industry altogether.” Oftentimes the silicon-valley dominated companies have glaring homogeneity at the top (where executives are dominated by white and Asian men) – which can lead to a narrow perception of what is deemed qualified. “In Silicon Valley Tech – the perception of what you can do is more based on who you are and how you look/present yourself versus what your actual capacity is.”

Constricting leadership and restrictive perceptions create environments where under-represented groups feel immense pressure to conform. Not just in their presentation, but in their use of language, expression and dialects.

The reality is that qualified applicants from under-represented groups feel the need to code-switch. As defined by the Harvard Business Review, code switching is when people “adjust one's style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.”

Diversity out in the open

Traditionally, heavy-hitters in corporate America have recruited and hired diverse top talent out of the same elite Ivy-League institutions. As a result, they overlook candidates from HBCUs or tier-2/3 schools who have experienced a different level of adversity in their professional journeys. This provides unique perspectives and values that are essential to a truly diverse workforce. Diverse candidates from elite institutions certainly bring value and diversity to the table, but often overlooked are candidates from more varied educational backgrounds who have forged different professional paths.

Expanding the scope of what is considered “qualified” criteria when recruiting and hiring diverse talent can bring more dynamic and wide-ranging inclusion from groups that have been glaringly under-represented in corporate America. We see this writ-large in the US justice systems. 

The U.S Supreme Court may look somewhat diverse, but when you investigate further you’ll see that essentially every single Justice graduated from either Yale or Harvard Law School. Not only do they come from the same schools, but almost all of them are former prosecutors. This lack of internal diversity may explain the prosecutorial bias towards punishment and maximum sentencing, causing mass incarceration in America which disproportionately impacts Black & Brown people.

This type of narrowly tailored scope of what is considered “elite” and “most qualified” has watered down diversity/recruiting initiatives. As a result, excluding exceptional candidates from a myriad of backgrounds, institutions and universities outside of the traditional ivy-league bubble.

There’s still more work to do

It’s productive to challenge ourselves by thinking of the diversity we don’t readily recognize within conventional diversity schools of thought. Particularly with diversity that we can’t always see with our own eyes, such as individuals with disabilities, gender fluid identities and cognitive diversity.

Duaa Zahra, an oil-on-canvas artist and professional Care Coordinator for Novocure, illustrates this in her advice to be more creative and open-minded when evaluating your Diversity strategy:

Often we may not consider under-represented groups who wear their diversity as well, be it Arab Muslims who wear their traditional garb or the person who wants to become a teacher with body tattoos, but is judged and discriminated against solely on appearance. Duaa Zahra

Another way organizations can challenge themselves to become even more dynamic with inclusivity is to bring the work of diversity outside of the board room. Taking diversity into professional communities to foster more employee engagement by promoting social engagement and community. As Julian Jackson describes,
It is important for talent acquisition professionals to build authentic relationships with affinity-based groups to create better partnerships and raise visibility of their organizations' brands and their opportunities. This starts with building and leveraging diverse human connections with people in the space. I think sometimes we fall into the trap that outreach and engagement has to look exactly alike and I think that causes us to miss out on real opportunities to meet stated outcomes and to exercise creative solutions to talent challenges Julian Jackson

We are living in a time that is arguably more polarized, divided and caustic than most can remember, particularly among younger generations. From the, now former, President of the United States creating an Executive Order to suspend Diversity training to nearly every aspect of society being politicized, the need for more intersectional unity and cultural competency is vital to our cohesion as a society.

Sceptics of DE&I initiatives may view Diversity, Equity & Inclusion as a strategy that creates advantages for select groups. In reality, the practice is about removing both conscious and unconscious bias to create more equity and a diverse workplace that accurately reflects the multicultural tapestry of humanity. These outcomes create a win-win situation for everyone as opposed to perpetuating norms that have only benefited the very few. 

This is a practice and work that has no end and no beginning – and should be viewed as a constant evolution of tasks to fine-tune our approach as societies themselves evolve.

One of our Program Managers, Shahid Malik, has taken an in-depth look into unconscious bias and how businesses can improve results of diversity programmes. To learn more around this topic, download the whitepaper today.

Armstrong Craven’s approach to leadership hiring and effective succession planning is grounded in research.

We’ve been focused on understanding talent demographics including diversity for 30 years. Our approach to diversity planning highlights and challenges any restrictive hiring criteria. It increases diversity in the workplace from the start of the process and offers viable solutions from the outset.

Want to know more? Speak to David M. Helfrich