Creating a workplace where people of all demographics feel welcome and able to participate is the right thing to do, both morally and to achieve a business’s highest potential.
Diversity is a hot topic in business, and for good reason: companies with high diversity significantly outperform those that are lagging. Given the concrete benefits that correlate with an integrated staff, it might seem surprising that stratification based on gender, race and sexuality is still so strongly built into the workforce. Presumably, some of this stems from an implicit like-attracts-like phenomenon, along with socioeconomic and other factors creating barriers to entry.
Still, while efforts to improve diversity have increased, the real-life actionable results have yet to carry significant impact: one Harvard Business Review article, tellingly titled “Diversity Policies Rarely Make Companies Fairer, and They Make White Men Feel Threatened” notes how diversity programs affect (specifically white men’s) perception of biases in the workplace and how white men are more likely to perform poorly in interviews for companies that are pro-diversity. Additionally, another HBR article shows that “if there’s only one woman [or other minority applicant] in your candidate pool, there’s statistically no chance that she’ll be hired.”
Over the last few decades, businesses have realized that building a team where all demographics are represented isn’t something that just happens on its own, and that diversity is worth dedicating time and thought to. However, the reasoning as to why this is important is undergoing a culture shift.
Research by Deloitte University shows that while people from all age groups consider diversity and inclusion (D&I) to be important, the principles behind this differ by generation. When millennials (defined here as people born after 1980) were asked to define diversity, they tended to focus on respecting identities, along with people’s unique experiences and the ideas, opinions and thoughts springing from these. By contrast people born before 1980 tended to think of diversity as a box-checking exercise, citing representation, demographics and equality.
The importance that millennials place on having an enriched and diverse workplace is reflected in their self-described engagement levels: 83% of millennials describe themselves as actively engaged when they believed their organization actively fosters inclusivity, compared to 60% who felt their organization did not have an inclusive culture.
Given how important engagement is to a business’s success, those figures alone would suggest that diversity is an essential point of focus for ambitious organizations, but it goes further than that. When a team is composed of people with a variety of experiences, opinions and ideas, they have an added resilience and agility, which business psychologists deem cognitive diversity. Organizations that benefit from a plurality of viewpoints have an advantage in innovating and weathering setbacks that might unseat their less-inclusive rivals.
Diversity As A Secret Weapon
The power of cognitive diversity is handily proved by looking at Slack, a tech startup star that has diversity built right into their business model.
When users noticed that the new “Add To Slack” button featured a brown hand, they filled social media channels with their resounding approval. Diógenes Brito, the designer who modeled the hand after his own, explained his thought process:
“Why was the choice an important one, and why did it matter to the people of color who saw it? The simple answer is that they rarely see something like that. These people saw the image and immediately noticed how unusual it was. They were appreciative of being represented in a world where American media has the bad habit of portraying white people as the default, and everyone else as deviations from the norm.”
A white hand wouldn’t have made a ripple, but going against the default got a lot of attention. Slack has continuously and intentionally marked themselves as being in the vanguard of a social inclusiveness revolution, and as a result, top-talent job seekers are taking note.
The converse of this marketing/cultural win happened when Beyonce namechecked Red Lobster in her massively successful Formation — which then took several hours to formulate a decidedly disappointing response.
— Erykah ❄️ (@ErykahTbh) February 7, 2016
Several Twitter users pointed out their sluggish response may have been down to discomfort entering a Black cultural space: misjudging this could have resulted in a nuclear chain-reaction of social media outrage. However, this hesitation underlined the absence of any Black millennials in Red Lobster’s PR department, who might have taken the wheel.
Red Lobster pays some digital agency $500,000 / year to manage that account and that's what they deliver. And why? No culture in the ranks.
— web smith (@web) February 7, 2016
Red Lobster’s fumble shows that businesses that don’t make D&I a priority aren’t just failing to fulfill a perceived moral responsibility: they could be leaving money on the table.
Diversity Doesn’t Imply Inclusion
However, harnessing the power of cognitive diversity isn’t as easy as hiring a representative cross section of the population. Discrimination can be subtle and insidious, consisting of dog-whistle language and plausibly deniable exclusion. Bootstrapping inclusivity requires an ongoing commitment to open mindedness: observing norms in speech, behavior and clothing may seem culturally neutral to the majority, but may feel like donning a costume to people from outside the dominant culture.
In addition, workers who feel the need to stifle their identities in order to conform to the status quo suffer a hit in their own engagement and productivity. In Peak Performance, a study into LGBT workers by the Stonewall initiative, private sector worker “Sally” elucidated this, saying:
The person that I am at work is now me rather than a doctored version of me. If you’re not 100% yourself how can you be 100% involved and committed and putting 100% in? It’s not like I wasn’t working hard before, but there’s no detachment or reservation now where there was before.
Generating spaces where everybody feels safe expressing their opinions is a tall order, but is essential to harnessing the true potential of a workforce, as well as maximizing engagement.
Given the importance of diversity and representation both in business and in the wider cultural sphere, thinking about it from a business perspective at all might seem cynical. However, while benefits from encouraging diversity and inclusion might seem long-term and abstract to wealth-makers who are concerned with the bottom line, money–and that businesses make more of it when diversity is a priority– is concrete. Being able to put a number on diversity’s benefits can help light a fire under policymakers, who may be naturally inclined towards an amoral attitude. That said, attacking the issue from a fiscal perspective may be the most efficient way of encouraging social change and improved opportunities for everyone.
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