Recently, I heard the CEO of a Fortune 100 company (who is a white male) describe an “a-ha” moment he had. His “a-ha” moment occurred when he finally realized what diversity really means. While looking over the agenda for a senior leadership meeting, he saw “team building activity” on the list and asked the group, “So, where are we playing golf?”
A few team members – who happened to be women – had a different idea of “team building.” They ended up planning a “giving back” activity the team could participate in. They cleaned up and repaired a long-neglected urban playground. The volunteer work was a huge success – not only for the recipients of a new playground but for the team members who connected in an inclusive, collaborative, meaningful way. The experience revealed the CEO’s subconscious bias – that was reinforced by years of working in a predominantly white-male environment – about what “team building” meant. It took diversification of the leadership team to generate fresh ideas about why team members connect and how it might be done better.
The CEO’s realization about team building was important, but his realization about something more profound matters far more: preventing discrimination is not the same as promoting diversity.
Too often, business leaders assume bare compliance with anti-discrimination laws (such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the the Equal Pay Act (EPA) will also create a diverse workforce. Following these laws may lead a business to hire women, people of color, disabled persons or others—however, what an employer really does when following the law is prevent discrimination. Preventing discrimination keeps a business out of legal trouble and generates goodwill. For insight into public perception of businesses’ diversity efforts, check out the results of a recent survey by researchers McGinn and Company and Repass Research. Spoiler alert: law firms ranked dead last.) However preventing discrimination is not the same as creating diversity.
Prevention efforts focus on eliminating explicit bias. These are things like moving a woman off a key assignment because she has young children or not promoting an otherwise qualified black candidate because of concern over how a client might react. Prevention of discrimination also focuses on stopping bad behavior rather than on changing perceptions or encouraging positive actions.
Cultivating and sustaining workforce diversity, on the other hand, requires positive action to eliminate the implicit biases that often undermines a diverse culture in which women, people of color and disabled persons can achieve parity and inclusion essential to professional growth.
Most importantly, businesses that don’t commit to creating a diverse workforce will incur enormous opportunity costs. Technology is quickly making the world smaller. Businesses’ economic success increasingly depends on the ability to serve a global customer base. To do that effectively for any length of time, the business must invest in talent that can achieve “customer empathy” – a relational understanding of the problems a customer needs to solve or an outcome a customer wants to achieve. As LinkedIn Influencer George Anders writes, “The fate of complex projects depends on a lot more than just getting the technical details right. Human buy-in is crucial, too. And the bigger the project, the more skill it takes to get everyone pulling in the same direction.” (And see Anders’s original piece, The Number One Job Skill in 2020.)
If your customer base is filled with people of widely varying characteristics – gender, race, culture, religion, sexual identity or orientation, economic class, cognitive style, physical ability – but your company is filled with “sameness,” customer empathy – the innovation that comes with that diversity will remain beyond reach.