How to Build the Business Case for D&I at your Company
Here’s how to build a business case for D&I that executives will actually listen to.
Diversity and inclusion is about a lot of things, chief among them creating work environments where all types of people are welcome and can thrive. Said another way, it’s about creating a work environment optimized for sourcing talent and increasing productivity.
When asking for money, resources, or even just executive support (which means asking for their time) for your diversity and inclusion strategy, be aware that you are competing against other corporate initiatives asking for resources. It may not be fair – buying new pens with logos on them can hardly feel comparative to a D&I program – but it’s the reality of budgets.
Identify Your Organization’s Unique Needs
One of the easiest ways for any business initiative to fail is if the person asking for resources uses overly broad or general research. While most executives appreciate best practices, be aware of two things: facts don’t always change people’s minds and executives are paid to care about their organization, not every organization.
To make broad facts applicable to your organization, connect them to what employees are saying and to data surrounding key organizational pain points. If turnover is an issue, for example, position D&I initially as a talent retention program. If you’re trying to double headcount in a year, D&I is a great way to deepen talent pools. If the the company is moving into a new market or trying to re-brand, a successful D&I program will not only help the company understand diverse markets but also show it cares about making the world a better place, both of which lead to business success.
Conduct surveys or interviews to get quantitative and qualitative data on how employees understand diversity and inclusion, issues they feel exist in the organization, and solutions they would like to see. When conducting surveys and interviews, keep in mind they should be optional – you’re not trying to force people into anything. Further, remember employees are likely not D&I experts and thus their suggestions should be checked against best practice research to ensure you won’t hit any unintended consequences.
Some tips for conducting surveys and interviews:
Position questions using desired outcomes, for example “What do you think would make this company more innovative?” or “On a scale of 1-5, do you feel you are heard and respected at work?”
Add open-ended questions for people to offer ideas and free-form comments
Think of potential success metrics and write survey / interview questions in a way that provides a baseline
Collect Relevant Facts
Once you know your angle, gather relevant facts to strengthen your pitch and show how research supports your claims:
A lack of diversity in talent pools “defies logic” when talking about hiring the best people possible
84% of executives believe a lack of focus on diversity and inclusion increases employee turnover
A Boston Consulting Group study found companies who focus on “total societal impact,” including D&I, have more longevity in the market
Diverse teams are 70% more likely to capture new markets, according to Harvard Business Review
A Deloitte study linked inclusion business performance (83% of inclusive companies saw an improvement) and customer responsiveness (31%)
69% of executives rank diversity and inclusion as important, up 32% since 2014, according to SHRM
Your potential customer base is getting more diverse, so building a D&I framework will help the organization better connect with them, according to SHRM
Structure a Winning Plan
Use the structure outlined below to easily offer the “executive summary” and delve into details as you go through your presentation, meeting, or conversation.
There are many ways to speak to the importance of diversity and inclusion, so take the company’s vision, look through the benefits of D&I, and explain how connected the two pieces are.
This serves two ends: it keeps the focus on the organization and it shows executives you aren’t attacking them or claiming they caused all the problems, but instead are showing them how it’s in their best interest to listen further to your plan.
Tying D&I into the company’s mission shows your project is tied into business challenges and actions, adding legitimacy to the proposal.
This is also a time to tie into near-term pain points and bring your “angle” back into the conversation.
Goals of the program
Executives may be concerned you’re trying to “boil the ocean” with an inclusion program since it can be incredibly far reaching. Be clear about what you are trying to achieve with the requested resources. If there’s more to do, list that too. In some organizations you may be able to ask one time for the whole project; others may need a phased approach to the business case based on early successes and testing.
If you have long-term goals in your strategy, break them down into milestones and short term progress goals so executives can more easily see the pathway.
When explaining initiatives and tactics to build inclusion, keep in mind “nudges” – small actions intended for quick impact – and “big splashes” – large initiatives designed for maximum change.
Creating inclusion checklists for things like events, copywriting, or hiring/interviewing so people have easy reference education
Making bathrooms either gender-neutral or open to people using the bathroom they identify with
Creating or updating a Respect in the Workplace policy (sometimes called an Anti-Discrimination Policy)
Example big splashes:
Revamping performance management processes and training managers on inclusive practices like how to build soft skills in employees who didn’t have the opportunity to learn elsewhere
Adding a parental leave policy or updating maternity leave to be for all parents
Updating health insurance to cover medical necessities for transgender people and/or holistically encompass needs for people of varying ages and family stages
Pick metrics that offer quantitative and qualitative feedback. One way to do this is by asking questions that affirm or deny the progress of initiatives, such as a scale of 1-5 of how much someone agrees with the statement “I feel I can be honest here, even when it means disagreeing with someone more senior than me”.
Some sample metrics:
Demographic changes in employee base, hiring, turnover, and promotions
Questions around feeling welcome, being able to share personal stories at work, feeling heard, or feeling supported
Revenue by team or project correlated to team diversity
Other specific metrics brought up by surveys and interviews
Be Prepared for Pushback
While dissent and tough questions happen for any initiative, it can be particularly intense for something personal like diversity and inclusion. Be prepared for when executives push back on your ideas, strategy, or even the premise of D&I in the organization.
Pushback: “Diversity and inclusion programs make people uncomfortable.”
The blunt answer here is: yes, they do. Diverse teams process data differently, so there will be disagreements that cause discomfort, but this is the foundation of genuine innovation. Discomfort happens when people don’t easily get along and agree happily – but if everyone agrees all the time, that is a signal the organization has a “groupthink” problem.
Pushback: “Diversity and inclusion can’t be measured without doing things like quotas, and we can’t do that.”
While it’s true that setting quotas isn’t effective for inclusion, D&I can absolutely have quantitative measurements. If this comes up, jump back to metrics and explain how there are numbers behind qualitative statements such as using the ranked method (“on a scale of 1-5…”). You can also use Net Promoter Score methodology to get a pulse on how employees feel about program progress.
As well, some initiatives are about completion, not a number, such as creating or updating a respect in the workplace policy (even this impact can be measured quantitatively, though, through the ranked method).
Pushback: “Diversity and inclusion program force people to do things they don’t want to or aren’t ready for.”
With this one, executives are in the right mindset. Forced action on diversity initiatives does not work. If this comes up, remind executives that all D&I actions are optional.
If you’re facing this kind of pushback, it could be a signal that your pitch didn’t describe the benefits of planned initiatives. Make sure you’re focused on how great your plan is for the company and what benefits people will get out of it. If they say making things optional means people won’t do it, reiterate benefits and share your plan for getting to action.
Pushback: “Isn’t diversity and inclusion just ‘reverse discrimination’ against straight people, white people, and men?”
No. While some programs have gone that way, you are not advocating for this kind of program. Your program is about making the work environment optimized so everyone can do their best work and gets the support they need.
As an example, adding an inclusion measure for someone in transgender community community, such as gender-neutral bathrooms, does not take away from a straight, or even gay/lesbian, person’s ability to use the bathroom they choose.
Similarly, adding a ramp for accessibility or offering someone a flexible desk or ergonomic chair does not take away from an able-bodied person’s ability to take the stairs, have a desk, or sit in a chair.
To cite a more personal example, training a manager to be aware of diverse cultures does not require them to discriminate against whichever cultural heritage makes up the workforce majority.
Pushback: “D&I is just a fad, so why would be invest money in it?”
The first major study for modern diversity and inclusion came from Harvard Business Review in 1990, so the research has been building over 25 years.
Further, the world is getting more diverse with migration and population growth, so building environments where every identity person can do their best work is a necessity as you look to sell in increasingly diverse markets.
Pushback: “What if you can’t please everyone?”
D&I, like any initiative, is not about pleasing everyone. It’s about making the organization better. Refer back to your planned initiatives and goals to show you have scoped the project. If it’s successful, you’ll continue your work and do more, asking for more resources if need be.
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