Fixing Corporate America’s Broken D&I System: Why HR Must Lead Inclusion Efforts

By Aram Lulla (Nov 10, 2020); published in Forbes

How do we have a frank conversation about racism with our colleagues? What about sexual harassment? According to McKinsey & Co, companies invest $8 billion annually on diversity training, but until recently, few businesses have supported open discussions to begin to understand their colleagues’ lived experiences. Just like political conversations, candidly discussing racism or sexism in the workplace has been taboo for years. This year is changing that — and HR must be prepared to lead the way.

SHRM recently spotlighted the efforts of Jaime Irick, PPG Vice President, Architectural Coatings. Following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, Irick wrote a letter about racism to his 6,000 employees, inviting other team members to share their experiences. Team members describe this as a watershed moment for empathy and understanding at their company as individuals shared and listened to colleagues. It’s these types of moments that may finally address the root issue that has plagued corporate diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts for years: You can mandate diversity, but you cannot mandate inclusion.

Why D&I Efforts Fail 

Diversity is the representation of all our varied identities and differences, including — but not limited to — race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. Many companies have policies mandating hiring diversity, for example, requiring a certain percentage of candidates to be female or people of color and requiring diverse interview panels. But these policies are just a starting point. Inclusion is what happens once a candidate is hired. It’s when a company actively strives to build a culture of belonging by inviting the contribution and participation of all employees. Consider this common analogy: If Diversity and Inclusion had a conversation, Diversity would ask, “Who’s in the room?” and Inclusion would respond, “Are we listening to everyone in the room?” 

One of the most obvious examples of inclusion failure is the makeup of senior leadership and executive teams. People of color represent 32% of entry-level positions but only 14% of C-suite positions. Women of color hold just 4% of C-suite positions. This gap isn’t due to a lack of talent, capability or ambition; it’s driven by corporate culture inclusion failures.

Beyond Diversity Hiring: Getting Serious About Inclusion

Hiring diverse talent isn’t enough — it’s the workplace experience that impacts whether professionals stay, grow and thrive at their companies. So how do companies prioritize a more inclusive workplace experience? These are three small places to start:

1. Hire — and empower — a D&I leader.

In a year of economic uncertainty, is hiring a D&I leader truly a wise investment? Making D&I an integrated part of your company’s business strategy is more than just a “nice to have”; it directly impacts the bottom line. Companies with diverse boards and executive teams are 35% more likely to financially outperform less-diverse competitors, according to McKinsey. And there’s a penalty for opting out: Companies in the bottom quarter for diversity are 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability.

Once you’ve made the business case for D&I leadership, it’s essential this hire is empowered to succeed. Your new D&I leader needs access to employee demographic data to tie leadership development and talent retention programs back to results. I find the most successful leaders are those who are empowered to collaborate closely with HR teams to enhance existing initiatives, such as unconscious bias training. D&I leaders must be seen as HR allies striving for the same goal: a more inclusive workforce.

2. Be honest about your company’s culture.

At Lucas Group, we’ve always prided ourselves on a culture of respect and co-worker camaraderie. But we’ve also been forced to face an uncomfortable truth this year: We’ve achieved “diversity by accident,” and we can do much more to be proactive and purposeful. Like the example set by PPG and other companies this summer, our leadership team has been sitting down with associates at every level to hear their daily reality in their own words. Leaders can’t let biases about how we want our company culture to be perceived blind us to reality. If we want to be truly inclusive, we must start by listening. 

3. Understand what drives decision-making.

A key part of inclusion is ensuring diverse voices are involved in decision-making at every level. A good starting point is to focus on increasing the breadth of active participants and the level of decision-making transparency. Consider how new voices can be integrated into large and small decisions, including policy reviews, resource allocation, project planning and day-to-day tasks. Part of integrating new voices into decision-making is creating an environment where people feel comfortable voicing a contrary opinion without fear of repercussions. 

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the divide between our work life and our home life no longer exists. It’s not just that more of us are working from home than ever before; it’s also that issues once seen as personal are profoundly impacting our professional experience. We can’t shy away from the tough conversations. HR must be at the forefront of this culture shift, enabling employees to bring their whole selves to work through a proactive and purposeful D&I program.

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