Hard Talk: Business Takes on Diversity and Inclusion

by John Howell, Editorial Director & VP of Content, 3BL Media
Nov 20, 2018 8:40 AM ET

Diversity and inclusion is the formal term of choice for issues that are racially, ethnically, and gender-related in today’s society. That legal-sounding label includes some of the most emotionally loaded issues in our culture, issues that have deep roots with complicated pasts in American history. Buoyed by cultural movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, issues of discrimination, unconscious bias, pay inequality, glass ceilings, immigration, LGBTQ rights, and outright harassment regularly make headline news. While these are hardly new issues, the volume and scale of pushback to make progress on them today feels different.

Business is not only taking note—it is now taking the lead to address these complex concerns.

Not so long ago, in traditional business schooling and business culture, leaders and employees were taught to avoid conversations about such topics in the workplace. The message was that it was not the place of business to address complex social issues. They were thought to be too divisive, too intractable, and potentially too disruptive. Besides, it was hard to see how they directly impacted a company’s bottom line. Such conversations took place, of course, but outside the office.

Today, those conversations are structured to happen within the workplace by company-supported programs. Why? Leaders are beginning to understand how biases are embedded in company cultures and systems—and that they have the power to make change through in-house initiatives. A millennial workforce that is comfortable having hard discussions about larger issues now insists on having them within the context of work, which is where they locate a good deal of their identity and find social meaning. Outside pressure matters, too: Daily news about the diversity issues roiling society at large is creating pressure for change makers to take action. Business is now prompted to lead in blazing a path toward
social progress.

The most impressive example to date of business’s new leadership is CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion™ (CEO Action) , the largest cross-industry commitment to advance diversity in the workplace. Crucially, it’s driven by CEOs—some 500 chief executives representing 85 industries have pledged their support since the program was launched in 2017, spearheaded by PwC’s U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan. Its mission spells out the challenge for signatories:

“The persistent inequities across our country underscore our urgent, national need to address and alleviate racial, ethnic and other tensions, and to promote diversity within our communities. As leaders of some of America’s largest corporations, we manage thousands of employees and play a critical role in ensuring that inclusion is core to our workplace culture and that our businesses are representative of the communities we serve. Moreover, we know that diversity is good for the economy; it improves corporate performance, drives growth and enhances employee engagement. Simply put, organizations with diverse teams perform better.”

Engaged CEO’s pledge to take “a specific set of actions . . . to cultivate a trusting environment where all ideas are welcomed and employees feel comfortable and empowered to discuss diversity and inclusion.” To date, over 400 “actions” have been initiated.

The program for collective action seems to be working. In an end-of-year survey, 89 percent of CEOs reported that they are now having “difficult conversations” about race and inclusion. Overall, 78 percent of CEOs said that the program has had a positive impact on diversity and inclusions in their companies. “People get what we’re trying to do and want to do the right things,” Ryan told Fortune.

Years ago, at a restaurant in New York’s Little Italy that I frequented, a waiter had a shtick he liked to play out on diners at the small eatery. After taking your order, he would ask, “What’s your nationality?” To anyone who answered “American” he’d say, “Which tribe?” making the point that only Native Americans—the misnamed “Indians”—were really “American.” Then he’d ask which country your ancestors came to America from. Answers offered up a veritable United Nations of countries from which earlier generations had immigrated to the U.S. (For the record, my “American” ancestors came from Ireland and Wales.) The grand finale was a restaurant-wide announcement, “Now we’re all here to make this new country, America.”

I’ve often thought about that waiter’s play on nationality, and how readily he made his point about who was “American,” with all the social connotations implied by ancestry from overseas.

It should be noted that this phenomenon is not limited to the U.S. Although the debates may seem the loudest here, many other countries are having the same conversation about what defines “Canadian,” “British,” “German,” and so on. Racial and ethnic implications weigh heavily in these discussions, as well as issues of gender equality and other social concerns as the traditional definitions of national culture undergo a long overdue re-set.

Business is acknowledging what larger cultures are proclaiming loud and clear: Modern societies are a majorly jumbled potpourri of mixed ingredients. The workplaces of today are beginning to look more and more like the diverse societies in which they are embedded.

Read more stories from CR Magazine here.