Diversity & Inclusion

The business case for diversity

by Kimberly Williams

Recently, my employer, Baystate Health, organized a regional Diversity and Inclusion Conference. While promoting the event on social media, I shared a video clip of one of the conference presenters who was making the “business case” for diversity. One of my Facebook friends asked, “Why are we still making a business case for diversity in 2014? Why is there a need?”  Light Bulb - Switched On

I was prepared for the question—as a diversity and inclusion practitioner, I hear it quite often. The question isn’t always framed exactly the same way. Variations I’ve heard along the way include, “Why are we still focused on the negative; things that make us different. Shouldn’t we be talking about our similarities?” To be honest, those are fair questions.

Strategic diversity initiatives have been part of the corporate landscape for more than 50 years. July 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. August 18, 1920, is the date when women were given the right to vote through the 19th Amendment. No matter what your benchmark, we have been at this for a long time.

This is a good place to differentiate between affirmative action, equal employment opportunity (EEO), and diversity and inclusion. In a 2012 Q&A response to the question about the difference, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) outlined the following distinctions:

  • EEO means freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex, color, religion, national origin, disability, and age. EEO rights are guaranteed by federal and state fair employment laws.
  • Affirmative action plans (AAPs) define an employer’s standard for proactively recruiting, hiring, and promoting women, minorities, disabled individuals, and veterans. Affirmative action is deemed a moral and social obligation to amend historical wrongs and eliminate the current effects of past discrimination. Federal contractors with contracts above certain dollar limits are required to institute AAPs under Executive Order 11246 and its regulations. In 2004, Roosevelt Thomas, a diversity and inclusion pioneer, referred to affirmative action as “a symptom of America’s unreadiness for diversity.”
  • Diversity initiatives are goals devised to measure acceptance of minorities by embracing cultural differences within the workplace. Diversity initiatives are twofold: valuing diversity and managing diversity. The value of diversity is achieved through awareness, education, and positive recognition of cultural differences within the workplace. The management of diversity expounds on the experience and establishes the business case for diversity that is closely aligned with an employer1s organizational goals.

In many organizations, such as Baystate Health, the term “diversity” is broadly applied to address all of the many dimensions that determine who we are and our outlook on the world. At Baystate, we believe that “diversity includes everyone.” More and more, you will hear diversity practitioners and thought leaders addressing the reality that diversity is a given—whenever there’s more than one person in the room, you have diversity. The way to increase the impact of diversity is by strategically creating teams that are reflective of diversity across many dimensions (gender, generation, race, family status, educational level, sexual orientation) and leveraging that diversity through inclusive policies and practices.

Inclusion is the ‘peanut butter’

When I talk to children about diversity and inclusion, I often use the example of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The thing that makes two slices of bread something yummy is the stuff you put in between them. Picture two people as the slices of bread and their differences and uniqueness as the peanut butter and jelly. Inclusion is the “stickiness” of the peanut butter that makes them all come together and bond.

My junior audiences always see that as a “no-brainer.” They have grown up in a world where difference is rather commonplace and inclusion is a natural way of life. My 13-year-old daughter views diversity as an adult problem. In fact, her generation, the Millennials, are the most diverse generation in the history of the United States, with 45 percent of Millennial adults belonging to racial or ethnic minority groups.

Perhaps my daughter is right. Every once in a while, I see research that discredits the value of diversity. Case in point: Research conducted in 2000 by Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, who found that “virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.” But even Putnam extols the virtue of ethnic diversity as a long-term strategy. In a 2007 interview on the NPR program Tell Me More, he stated, “It’s not merely a fact that America’s becoming more diverse. It’s a benefit. America will—all of us will—over the long run, benefit from being a more diverse, more heterogeneous place. Places that are more diverse have higher rates of growth on average. . . . It’s just a more interesting place to live.”

Bottom line

That brings us back to the question of why we have a continued need to make the case for diversity. My response is that we are likely to be making the case far into the future. Although diversity is a given, inclusion requires intentional hard work. According to Putnam, “At a minimum, it requires us to regularly spend time with people who share some value or experience that trumps our racial and ethnic connections.” In communities that are increasingly more diverse, but at the same time more segregated, that is a tall order.

The good news is that in every organization, there are dedicated champions of diversity and inclusion who believe as Franklin Thomas did: “One day our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin, or the shape of our eyes, or our gender, instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings.” As those champions become greater in number and stronger in voice, the business case for diversity will become more and more of a “no-brainer.”

Kimberly Williams is a Senior Diversity Consultant for Baystate Health, one of the largest healthcare systems in New England and the largest regional employer in western Massachusetts. She can be reached at kimberly.williams@baystatehealth.org.


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