It's objectively true that diversity is good for business. In fact, businesses with strong gender diversity are 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability, compared with gender diversity laggards. Firms with strong ethnic diversity, meanwhile, are 36 percent more likely to have above-average profitability. The business case is long-since settled.
Still, progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) remains slow. Sixty-four percent of entry-level positions are held by white people. Higher up the ranks, the numbers are more illuminating, with 85 percent of executive positions held by white people.
So where are the stumbling blocks? There are many, but one that can't be ignored is the discomfort and fear many white executives have around initiating open and honest conversations. Fear of being called out online, or saying the wrong thing to employees, board members, customers, or others, can be paralyzing, even for executives with the best of intentions.
At the end of the day, however, even when DEI committees and task forces are in place, the person at your company who needs to own DEI is the CEO. If your CEO is a woman or a minority, that's great. But chances are they aren't. And to create a culture that values not only diversity, equity, and inclusion but also true belonging, the CEO needs to be the one leading the conversation, setting the stage that it's OK to be comfortable with discomfort to drive meaningful change.
I heard about a company welcoming their first transgender employee. The head of HR sent out a note, not only welcoming the employee but also explaining their pronouns and how they should be addressed. Importantly, the note also said, "You're going to screw this up. That's normal. What's important is that you make an effort and when you do screw it up, apologize and move on." That is the mindset that not only the CEO should be taking when it comes to addressing issues of diversity in the workforce, but everyone in the organization. We all need to start the conversation, not be paralyzed by discomfort--moving things forward, even if it's at a 45-degree angle, is better than standing still.
So where does that conversation start? It starts with executives truly taking ownership of DEI, and acknowledging that, while they may not be perfect, they are committed to diversity and belonging. There are a few key ways to begin the discussion:
Talking about metrics
Last year, my company started a DEI task force, specifically tasked with keeping our company accountable. It's a big tent, counting about a third of our employees at all levels of the organization. As a result of that task force's initial work, we have an entire slate of tracked metrics related to DEI at the department level and organization-wide. Those metrics carry just as much weight as our financial ones, so their importance is underscored to everyone in the company.
Talking about investment
Establishing metrics in a vacuum won't achieve anything. We tie DEI directly to compensation. Ten percent of every person's bonus is tied to hitting divisional and organizational DEI goals. Putting real dollars behind DEI engenders buy-in from everyone and ensures that publicly stated commitments are more than just a flash in the pan.
Talking about the issues regularly
DEI isn't something that should just be foisted onto the women and people of color in your organization as something to figure out. Your CEO, your CFO, your COO? They all need to invest significant time in thinking about policy and having conversations. And it needs to be about more than getting leadership in a room with all the women, LGBTQ+, and people of color in your company to talk about what's wrong with DEI. If you were interested in increasing revenue, after all, you wouldn't only meet with finance. It needs to be a regular, ongoing conversation with everyone, and that takes the investment of time.
This kind of honest and open conversation lets the genie out of the bottle--and I mean that in the best way possible. Having the push for true progress start earnestly at the top is the first step to critical mass. We talk about DEI each month at our company metrics meeting. Right alongside user growth and revenue discussions, we talk about our DEI goals. It's not a one-time discussion--it needs to be ongoing over the course of years.
At the end of the day, DEI progress--and failings--falls at the feet of the mostly white, mostly male executive class in this country. It's unacceptable to continue to let personal discomfort stem progress. It's on executives now to overcome their fears, not lean on the diverse communities around them to hold their hands, and not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. It's time to have a conversation.