Why focusing on the “business case” for diversity is a red flag

The question, “What is the business case for diversity?” is a red flag.
The question, “What is the business case for diversity?” is a red flag.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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As a diversity and inclusion (D&I) professional, it baffles me how many times I still get asked, “can you help me convince my executive team on the the business case for diversity?” Or “what’s the ROI of diversity and inclusion?”

It’s not that the “business case” for diversity is unimportant. We have decades of research proving how diversity and inclusion boost financial performance, innovation, market share, team collaboration, and more. This information has played a critical role in advancing many D&I initiatives and paved ways for future ones. Rather, it’s that for some companies and executives, even the most compelling data seems to require additional rounds of convincing. After all, research has proven facts and data don’t actually change people’s minds.

I’m afraid too many are wasting time trying to convince those who don’t have the desire to be convinced in the first place. I’m afraid too many executives are hiding behind the decades-old question of “what’s the ROI?” to delay the work that should have begun in their companies a decade ago, or the work that needs to continue.  I’m afraid focusing on the short-term, quantifiable “ROI” won’t be enough to create a sense of urgency or the level of commitment necessary to push forward.


Because “diversity and inclusion” is hard. It is not the easy way:

  1. Diversity creates discomfort: Diverse teams work smarter and innovate better because of the inherent discomfort and friction diversity creates. Differences make us question our own biases and others’, rely on objective facts, and process decisions more rigorously.
  2. Inclusion requires more variables and less standardization: To create a workplace inclusive for everyone, you have to deviate from what is considered the “norm” because the norm was created with the dominant group in mind. This means, for example, providing flexible work arrangements, varied working conditions accessible to all, and benefits that truly benefit.
  3. D&I is a long-term game and it’s hard to quantify progress: Investing in D&I often doesn’t show immediate results. It’s not easy to measure progress, either. ROI of a well-run employee resource group? Or that cool LGBTQ lunch & learn panel? Tough to measure quantitatively. There certainly is no “silver bullet” to “fixing” companies’ diversity or inclusion gaps.

What’s easier than encouraging diversity and inclusion is creating a homogeneous group of people who think similarly, enjoy similar things, work similar hours, and don’t make each other uncomfortable. What’s easier is providing standardized working hours and working conditions, streamlined benefits, and sticking to the “default” ways of being. While the homogeneous approach may not lead to the level of innovation that Harvard Business Review links to diverse teams, it can lead to a well-oiled machine of like-minded people and an enjoyable working environment for those in the homogeneous group. And this may not be that bad of an alternative, at least for those who belong already. Asking for the numbers can delay what will be a difficult transition.

When you are solely focused on efficiency and profitability, a diverse and inclusive workplace may not give you a quick enough solution. You’ll end up looking for that “checklist” that merely gets you to comply with what’s minimally required. You’ll treat D&I as a crisis prevention strategy.

It’s like going on a crash diet to see a different number on a scale, but not really changing your overall lifestyle. The scope of your goal is too narrow and your vision limited. To achieve lasting change, you have to focus on something bigger than what you can measure in the short-term.

Otherwise, there is little or no immediate incentive for those in positions of power to change, to opt-in to walk the tougher path. McKinsey & Company, in its 2013 report “Lessons from the leading edge of gender diversity,” noted that CEOs of companies most successful at creating gender diversity have been committed to the cause at a much more personal level, with a passion that “goes well beyond logic and economics.” They summarize that “numbers matter, but belief makes the case powerful.”

We need leaders to be inspired beyond, or in addition to, the business case to invest in D&I. To fuel long-term commitment, we need them to believe having a diverse and inclusive team is mission-critical and is the right thing to do.

A version of this story was first published on Medium.