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Lesson learned in diversity

By Travor Wilson

Diversity has not had the transformational impact promised a decade ago. However, if we heed the lessons of the past, there is time to develop diversity into true inclusivity and human equity.

A decade ago my company was approached by a US magazine to contribute to a series called the Pioneers of Diversity. The series was designed to highlight the perspectives of about 40 global thought leaders on diversity to establish where it should go next. In that series we issued a call for an evolution in thinking related to diversity: a call to move beyond concentrating on groups toward a talent-based focus on the individual; a call to move beyond the superficial differences related to gender, race, age, sexual orientation, etc., toward a more meaningful categorization of differences; a move toward differences that may inform but never define who a person really is. In that article we came up with the concept of human equity, a new approach to maximizing the total human capital available to a corporate entity. Recently we were informed that this series will run again, with the focus on how the perspectives of these leaders have changed in 10 years.

So what has happened in the past 10 years? Well, it took about six more years to research, refine and then comprehensively test the idea of human equity. This journey was then documented in my book The Human Equity Advantage: Beyond Diversity to Talent Optimization. Shortly after the publication of the book we were approached by a number of innovative employers seeking to move their group-focused diversity programs toward the individual talent focus of human equity. Our experience implementing human equity over the past decade has enabled us to discover several significant lessons.

Lesson 1: In order for diversity to evolve and become a critical part of today’s business dialogue, programs must move beyond the superficial differences of gender, race, culture, age and sexual orientation to those differences that epitomize the uniqueness of individual talent, including both tangible and intangible characteristics. In organizations that practise human equity, these types of differences are not merely recognized but are leveraged for organizational success.

Lesson 2: Typical group-based diversity programs can frequently lead to a hierarchy of inequity that breeds destructive intergroup competition, with white, middle-class women at the top of the heap and white, middle-aged men at the bottom (if they are included at all). Recently Deloitte dismantled its female and minority employee resource groups, citing the tendency to exclude the participation of white, able-bodied men.

Lesson 3: In order for diversity to be relevant to today’s business agenda, the program must first focus on the behaviour of leadership. Our experience over the past decade clearly shows that shifting leadership behaviour in key areas, such as dignity and respect, ethics and integrity, equitable opportunity, leveraging talent and openness to differences, is the linchpin to creating an inclusive and equitable work environment for all. Corporate cultures don’t change because people think differently; they change because people (especially leaders) behave differently.

Lesson 4: In order for diversity to evolve, its guiding principle must be about equity for all versus equity for some, regardless of the legislated or litigated circumstances an organization faces.

Lesson 5: In order for diversity to be relevant to today’s business agenda, metrics must be linked to employee engagement measured through a diversity lens. For example, if employee engagement for millennials is twice as high as it is for baby boomers, can we really say we have a fully engaged workforce? We’ve learned that overall employee engagement does not tell the complete story about a work environment. The devil is in the details.

Ten years ago one of the pioneers featured in the first round of articles warned, “Depending on the decisions made now, diversity’s impact is likely to range from incidental to transformative.” In light of the current political environment it is relatively clear which side of that argument won. Diversity has not had the transformational impact promised, imagined or hoped for a decade ago. However, if we heed the lessons of the past, there is time to develop diversity into human equity interventions that can transform current and future work environments.

Trevor Wilson is the author of The Human Equity Advantage: From Diversity to Talent Optimization. His firm, TWI Inc., specializes in diversity, inclusion and human equity as business issues.

This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of CPA Magazine.