Column: Businesses, ditch diversity at your own peril
Updated: Oct 10
Companies that invest in diversity now are more likely to be ready for the economy of the future
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of occasional columns about diversity in the workplace by Setche Kwamu-Nana, an inclusion, diversity and equity trainer/consultant.
Some perceive it as a dirty word, representing fatigue, loss, diminished freedoms, or even “reverse discrimination.” To others, it’s a liberating word, representing an invitation to participate in aspects of society they’ve historically been excluded from. Meanwhile, some are indifferent. But for business owners and workers who are looking to weather the most severe economic downturn in 50 years, diversity should be a word that means “opportunity.”
If you’re wondering if diversity is just a buzzword some companies use to keep themselves out of trouble or put a Band-Aid on PR mishaps, you’re probably at least half right. Many do not understand the implications of diversity and thus miss the opportunities.
I am a Black woman who lived in Santee, and I used to think I knew what diversity was all about, but my understanding was incomplete. In the course of years of sustained effort toward personal growth and experience helping individuals, organizations, and communities embrace, foster and leverage diversity, I finally realized that my understanding had been misguided and inadvertently detrimental to sustainable human progress.
I hope today many of us — whether you’re a CEO, entrepreneur, employee — are open-minded, humble and compassionate enough to learn and grow with me. And that this column will help us think in ways we might not have considered before and will help us create a more just and prosperous society for all who live in it, regardless of our differences.
Companies that invest in diversity now are more likely to be ready for the economy of the future. Study after study has shown that workplace diversity makes for more profitable businesses. And the most successful managers will get the entire concept of IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility). To bolster and sustain diversity and reap its benefits, you need the entire IDEA!
Let me explain how this IDEA works.
Inclusion is how we engage and leverage differences;
Diversity is the existence of differences among people;
Equity is fairness in policies, processes, and systems, thus, enabling full participation and advancement of different kinds of people
Accessibility is enabling full access to resources despite our differences.
If your organization successfully adopts the IDEA framework, people in your organization will like they belong. Belonging is the result of successful IDEA implementation. Everyone (regardless of differences) feels valued, productive, and able to be their best and whole selves.
Here is a common analogy with my own twist: Diversity is inviting different kinds of people to the party; accessibility is ensuring they all can get in the building; inclusion is asking the different kinds of people to dance; equity is asking the different kinds of people to help plan the party and actually valuing and utilizing their input.
Consequently, party attendees will feel a sense of belonging regardless of their background. This implies that in the long run, successful equity will result in less effort needed in creating diversity, inclusion, and accessibility because the party would have been planned with consideration for the different needs and interests of the diverse people.
Diversity management has been evolving to include inclusion and equity management to foster belonging, as more organizations grasp the strategic imperative of having IDEA baked into their DNA. True IDEA is transformational, not transactional; and strategy-driven, not compliance-driven. Effective IDEA implementation can enable an organization increase its market share by:
Increasing sales of existing products/services in existing markets
Introducing existing products in new markets
Innovating new products for existing and new markets
Potentially increasing corporate social responsibility
Increasing profits due to efficiency and productivity gains that result from better collaboration and team effectiveness
An increase in employee satisfaction and engagement
Those with the right “IDEA” make products and offer services more suitable for a wide range of customers. This is demonstrated in the stories of the soap dispensers that didn’t recognize dark skin or the crash test dummies that didn’t factor in safety for female bodies, just to name a few.
We tend to think inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility are about helping other people with their problems. We don’t realize that the process of learning about cultures and identities (including ours) and that others are having a different experience, is actually life-changing for us and gives us many insights that propel us into our better selves and maximize our potential.
Furthermore, a rising tide lifts all boats. If we care about and address the issues that disproportionately affect the marginalized in our teams, organizations, and communities, we are helping ourselves in the long run. For example, closed captions may have been designed in consideration for people who are hard of hearing, but today, many hearing people enjoy the benefits of closed-captions, too. Likewise, SMS texting was invented by Finish inventor, Matti Makonen and his team, to help deaf people communicate. Today, texting is universal and has inspired other popular instant messaging services like WhatsApp, Messenger, and Telegram.
I encourage everyone to develop an interest in and personal responsibility for learning about and cultivating IDEA. Remember that others are having a different experience than you. So, use inquiry and curiosity to understand their world and broaden your perspective.
If making the world a better place for all who live in it is not your cup of tea, or hearing the words diversity, inclusion, equity, or accessibility evokes resistance or fatigue in you, at least consider the economic benefits articulated here and nicely summed up in the leadership expert Tom Peters’ words: “I am not a fan of diversity because I want to go to heaven. I am a fan of diversity because I want to make a lot of money!”
Setche Kwamu-Nana is an inclusion, diversity, and equity (IDE) professional, building bridges that transform hearts, minds, systems, and behaviors. She has a degree in chemical engineering, an MBA with a concentration in human resource management, and is a Certified Diversity Professional by the National Diversity Council. She worked as an IDE leader at Caterpillar Inc. and Intuit Inc., and is also a facilitator at the National Conflict Resolution Center and Non-profit Management Solutions. www.setche.com