Three Important Measures of Organizational Diversity
When I left my job in mid-April to start my own company, leaving a stable job in financial services looked like a risky move. Covid-19 was just beginning to make its mark on the business landscape, since many companies were scrambling to figure out remote work quickly and for the first time. Like everyone else, I was also not aware that a modern day Civil Rights movement was on the horizon. Diversity has exploded into a trending topic in the past two months. There are also hopeful signs that this is a movement rather than a trend.
I decided to spend the first few months of self-employment in a graduate level course called Race in Contemporary America. Little did I know the topic of my studies would rise to national attention. While I do also have decades of experience in work that advances racial equity, one class does not make me an expert on racism in America. Discrimination due to the color of my skin is not my experience. Similarly, one diversity committee or one minority leadership hire does not make an organization equitable or inclusive. I often think and write about diversity, equity and inclusion through the lens of my own experiences with living with an invisible rare disease.
Over and over again, I have seen organizations turn DEI initiatives into projects or add-on programs. However, in every case, decision making is a key indicator of progress in diversity efforts. A commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is a commitment to changing authority and decision making structures. What follows are three (non-comprehensive) checkpoints to begin to gauge whether your company’s efforts are advancing DEI.
1) Board of Directors: Review whether the make-up of your board represents the racial demographics of your customer base. If it does not, it is time to find better representation. If your argument is that your customer base is not racially diverse, broadening your organizational perspective by adding decision makers that don’t look or think like you will provide a competitive advantage. Often, when we surround ourselves only by those that look and think like ourselves, we miss what we don’t know, including things that have competitive importance.
2) Hiring Practices: If diversity does not extend above a certain pay grade, you are not making progress. If your argument is that you can’t find diverse leaders, there are reasons this might be. It may be that your company finds it faster to find a White candidate to fill a slot quickly. This is due to cycles of opportunity. Since we have data that most executive and leadership roles go to Whites, they also become more likely to have relevant experience for future management opportunities. Prepare and train minority employees for the next level of management if you can’t find external candidates (and even when you can). Secondly, if you are not getting many minority candidates, you may already have a reputation that proceeds you. This is an organizational culture issue that you need to fix.
3) Product Design: Some companies create products and services that serve Black and Brown communities without anyone in leadership that understands the challenges faced by the same. A good place to begin is to ask your leadership team is why you want to sell to people you are not willing to work with. The second best question to ask is what problem you are trying to solve for these demographics. If you are not willing to face the first question honestly, you may find that your real motivations are bordering on (or more likely, outright) exploitative. If your business genuinely wants to solve social problems, your company’s commitment needs to be to understanding structural racism. Solving problems requires understanding why they exist in the first place.
Events of recent months have revealed to many businesses where they need to do better. It is fortunate that many organizations are recognizing that their relevance depends on embracing change in this area. This above list is not complete. Your specific company may need to address things not included here. While there may be check-the-box initiatives to take that can improve your business model, diversity, equity and inclusion is a way of life and a way of being as a business. It always starts with decision making and always integrated into the culture.