Why DEI’s business case is broken


“If we can just explain the business case, diversity and inclusion will be more likely.”

For decades, the DEI and the business community have peddled the dogma that if the business case for diversity was presented to leaders, they would be compelled to act.

The business case has been clarified. Leaders have been told about the link between profit, innovation and DEI, yet so little has changed.

Based on the belief that business leaders are rational, singularly growth-oriented people who react to data and act on it, the business case brigade ignored two key points:

First, the self-interest of the leaders themselves, who, due to their own identity, see DEI changes as a negative impact on them and therefore resist or ignore DEI.

Secondly, and above all, as Fearless Futures, an education and consulting company DEI shared with me, the business case itself betrays the principles of inclusion and equity. I couldn’t agree more. Here’s why.

DEI’s business case is shattered

Narratives around the “business case” are dehumanizing not only because they value underrepresented groups solely on the basis of their potential to benefit businesses, but also because this added value derives from their experience of oppression itself. same. By reinventing and turning the pain and trauma of oppression into profit, the business case empowers and dehumanizes marginalized employees.

Fearless Futures sees the business case as a failed method that we should divest from. I spoke to their Founder and CEO, Hanna Naima McCloskey, to learn more about how leaders can begin to reconsider their company’s approach to diversity, equity and inclusion by examining how and if the following indicators are taken into account:

1. The personal interest of leaders

When we look at who is in leadership positions, we see the consequences of inequity: these roles are mostly occupied by people from dominant groups (white, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, etc.). Most people who hold these privileged identities do not want to give up the power that the status quo gives them. The business case has been touted as a remedy for this self-interest problem, but while the benefits of DEI will be enterprise-wide, the changes needed to achieve it will likely impact people individually. and at the top, along the way.

McCloskey shared: “The business case, presented as a rational approach that can counter human emotion, ignores the fact that business leaders are still human. For many there is a deep resistance to reality – which must be recognized for doing DEI work – which some leaders have achieved their roles and positions in part on the basis of structurally advantaged identities in society. this, which unsurprisingly does not include any action for DCI whatever the numbers say.”

2. Companies have relied on marginalized people to make a profit (and still do in many cases)

The “business case” argument also obscures the fact that many companies are already hiring marginalized people because they are more exploitable and can be paid. poverty wages. Restaurants ‘benefit’ from ‘diversity’ because marginalized people receive the lowest wages. We can also see it through history. Slavery was maintained precisely because of its business case – exploitation and extraction is profitable. Arguments that focus on corporate profitability are therefore rarely inherently beneficial to marginalized people in practice.

McCloskey told me: “If the ‘business case’ advantage emerges, it is often those individuals already in positions of power who will reap the material rewards: owners and senior executives who receive large bonuses or stock the company. In this regard, the very purpose of the business case is to further compensate those who have already benefited from the status quo. »

3. There may be costs involved which will be impossible to recover

The reality of DEI is that attracting, recruiting and retaining marginalized communities will almost always require an investment of time and money. You may need to rearrange your office to make it easier for people with disabilities to move around in, your sick pay policy may need to change, and your parental leave policy may cost you more.

But why should marginalized employees have more to prove, and a greater burden on their shoulders to justify their existence in your workplace, than someone else who happens to have identities that society benefits from? To McCloskey’s point, they shouldn’t.

What to do instead

The business case is basically a sloppy approach that bills itself as a “quick win”.

Meaningful work, however, rarely happens this way. Instead, DEI leaders need to dig in and lean into one-on-one conversations with senior leaders to locate those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the job right. Building with just a few committed senior leaders who are eager to learn and ready to act is far more powerful for transformation than countless superficially engaged people.

“Once you locate your brave early adopters,” notes McCloskey, “focus your attention on redesigning internal structures, such as policies and processes, to try to make inequitable harm as unlikely as possible.” This approach does not require mass buy-in, but rather establishes the safeguards for what is encouraged and allowed by staff. This is how we can increase equity and inclusion for marginalized people.

However, to do this work with integrity, DCI leaders simply need to insist that this work matters because these people and communities matter. And that marginalized employees, current and future, deserve a workplace and a world that starts with the belief that oppressed communities are worthy of legitimacy, dignity and security.

When inclusion grants people their humanity, we cannot do it in a dehumanizing way.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.


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