How to Win Over the Skeptics

Diversity has come a long way since its early days, but every shrewd diversity leader knows there is still much work to be done. The marketplace is changing rapidly, but attitudes are a different story. The task of influencing organizations to accept diversity as a business imperative can make diversity practitioners feel like they are detectives working a cold case.

Sometimes, they can’t even sleep.

“What keeps me up at night is the magnitude of the job and the role,” said Sharonne Hayes, director of diversity and inclusion for Mayo Clinic. “I think it’s so important in general and to Mayo Clinic. We’ve spent the past couple of years deciding what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it, and we’ve set a very broad agenda.”

Hayes said Mayo Clinic has recognized diversity for years, but has only recently taken its efforts to the next level by appointing her to the newly created role two years ago. Now the task at hand is to embed diversity into every fiber of the organization as Mayo Clinic works to become a national leader in the science and promotion of health equity.

“It was our highest leadership — our board of trustees — that made the business case,” Hayes said. “We feel strongly about this, and what’s fortunate for me is I have very high leadership support. My boss’ bosses feel this is important and have helped frame the business case. But the next step is translating that business case.”

The Burden of Proof
Translating the business case requires an effective communication strategy, Hayes said. Sometimes, it can be as simple as a one-on-one conversation. Hayes described an example that occurred while chatting with an employee who criticized diversity efforts.

“He said, ‘I want to be able to hire whomever I want to hire, and I want to hire the best.’ I was immediately taken aback. I said, ‘First of all, how do you define best? Then we had a nice, really civil conversation about the business case for diversity. In the end he had this ‘a-ha’ moment and said, ‘Sharonne — I get it.’”

But getting it is not enough to spark action, said Rodney Patterson, corporate diversity and talent management officer for CoBank. Managers have to use diversity, demonstrate it and empower employees to do the same. That story is often told well, but there is a gap between what is known and what actually occurs within organizations.

“A robust communications strategy makes certain that folks across the organization are aware of what’s happening and are also aware of what opportunities exist within the company from a learning or an empowerment standpoint,” he said.

There is a big difference between an organization that recognizes diversity and one that is empowered to embed it into every function of the business, Patterson said. Economic conditions can shed light on how some organizations truly feel about diversity. But it is in these kinds of tough times that properly communicating the business case for diversity can have the most impact.

“[Some organizations] may view the diversity aspect of what’s offered as an add-on as opposed to it being integral and intricately involved or connected to what they’re doing,” Patterson said. “It’s not a nice to have — it’s a need to have.”

Tony Byers, former vice president of diversity and inclusion for food company Heinz, said he came to this realization when he observed a marketing team for an infant nutrition product sold mostly outside of the U.S.

“They were all males,” he said. “We had a really interesting conversation … about marketing that product to the consumer base — primarily women — who, in the global economy, make 85 percent of purchasing decisions inside of a household.”

The group subsequently performed well, but Byers said he wondered “how deep could an all-male team really go” in terms of understanding how to market effectively to women. Initially they didn’t do all of their homework; there wasn’t time.

“As a practitioner, I no longer have the luxury of bringing in a lot of additional resources, which means I really have to roll up my sleeves, and I may have to facilitate some of these sessions that our global leaders program would normally bring in someone [external] to do a great job,” Byers said. “I’m now that someone.”

The Missing Pieces
Along with new economic realities, Byers said he also is dealing with an issue that has plagued diversity executives for decades: workforce representation. His discussions with seasoned diversity executives revealed that change is slow in this area, and Byers said this is troubling.

“[They say],‘Tony, we were dealing with this 25 years ago, and we seem to be dealing with the same issue: How do we increase representation in our organization and in our leadership?’”
Again, communication is key. Spreading the message about the value of a diverse workforce consistently from leadership levels down to the functional leaders who hire people is an effective way to improve representation, Byers said.

He enhances communication by creating developmental programs to help minorities view both their own cultures and Heinz’s workplace culture differently, and aiding their efforts to learn how to blend the two together to be successful.

Heinz also mentors diverse employees to increase their effectiveness. “We are really trying to give people some additional insight into the way our business operates,” Byers said.

Mentoring can help employees at all levels understand the business case for diversity. For Rafael Gutierrez, vice president of diversity and inclusion for Ameriprise Financial, the great challenge lies in demonstrating the value of diversity to middle management, because he said this group in particular doesn’t “get it.”

“To see movement in their excitement is really to make [diversity] part of their core competency,” he said.

Gutierrez also leads workshops for all of his recruiters to ensure that diversity is a priority as they source a fresh pool of talent for managers. “There are plenty of diverse candidates,” he said. “[Recruiters] just have to bring them out.”

However, he said it is human nature to try to hire “someone like you,” an issue that he has experienced personally.

“I had a position open in my group,” he said. “I interviewed a lot of people. I had five final candidates. I asked myself, ‘Who’s my top candidate right now?’ And I realized he was just like me: The guy was Latin American; we had similar backgrounds; and I had to stop myself and say, ‘Wait a second.’ … If you push yourself, you can hire someone who will bring something different.”
Along with evaluating one’s own unconscious bias, metrics are important to make and translate the business case for diversity.

“I’ve been proposing to my team that everything we do, we must measure,” Gutierrez said. “Measure: Is it helping us recruit in new markets that we have not been in? Is it helping our advisers [to explore] areas they have never been before?”

A Break in the Case
This need to explore the benefits of diversity will become more critical in the years ahead. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2050, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians combined will account for more than half of the U.S. population. Therefore, Patterson said the next chapter of corporate diversity will mean constructing an effective, diverse leadership pipeline.

“The most recent shift has been moving out of thinking about just who comes through the door to what we do with the folks that do come to the door to make sure they feel included,” Patterson said. “In the last three to five years there has been even a greater progression from thinking merely about inclusion to full engagement.”

Patterson said engagement will be a key concept to cementing diversity’s role as a business imperative, as evidenced by CoBank’s diversity tagline: “If we do engagement right, diversity will take care of itself.”

Byers said engagement prompts another diversity-driven business advantage — innovation.
“[In the future], it won’t be a straight focus on ‘need more ethnic minorities’ or whatever that number might be,” Byers said. “It’s going to be more about how this drives us towards innovation … Are we driving innovation enough that we can continue to offer consumer products that our customers are going to want?”

Current leaders seem to be aware of that: In a July 2011 Forbes Insights survey of more than 300 senior executives, 85 percent of them agreed — 48 percent strongly agreed — that “a diverse and inclusive workforce is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that drive innovation.”

Negative Emotions
With so much strong evidence out there supporting the business case for diversity, why are diversity executives still met with resistance? Mitchel D. Livingston, chief diversity officer for the University of Cincinnati, said, “We are threatened by differences, and I think that is instinctive.”

Further, naysayers might be jaded, but he said it is important to consider their perceptions or any prior experiences. For instance, a negative encounter during a diversity training event could make people less receptive to organized efforts to enhance diversity strategy and practice. Diversity leaders may even need to be familiar with basic tenets of psychology to help dispel lingering negative emotions.

There is work being done to that effect. For example, a March American Psychological Association task force report stressed the importance of psychological science when devising strategies and tools to teach the importance of diversity to all age groups: in the workplace, schools, media and families. The report also encouraged teaching young people the value of diversity and the detrimental health effects of bias and stereotyping.

“I believe diversity as a way of thinking is the next big revolution that has to happen here,” Livingston said.

Elizabeth Lisican is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She can be reached at