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Designing for diversity: Turning rhetoric into reality

Eight ways to push beyond policies to drive the future forward

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Multi-racial group of two men and two women Diversity and inclusion is no longer a tick-the-box exercise, where leaders give only a perfunctory nod of the head to the value of inclusion. Instead, culture itself needs to be reset. Now is the time to turn rhetoric into reality to drive the diversity and inclusion agenda forward. That change starts with committed, courageous leadership.

Too often, though, the responsibility for effecting change sits within the human resources silo. The larger goal of facilitating true diversity and inclusion throughout the organization must start with leaders who act as organizational change agent.

Dynamic market forces are driving next generation leaders to fully embrace the diversity and inclusion agenda, including developing policies and processes that serve to encourage employees to share their diverse experiences, perspectives, backgrounds and thinking. Only then can leaders turn diversity and inclusion into a real competitive advantage. They must ask “How can I leverage diversity and inclusion to develop new business? What role can I play in promoting and driving this?”

Are businesses doing their part? While achieving diversity continues to be at the top of the business agenda, the newly-released Grant Thornton International Ltd.’s (GTI) study Women in business: Beyond policy to progress reveals that few U.S. organizations have specific policies in place to support diversity initiatives.

Chart: How many businesses have diversity policies?
Francesca Lagerberg, global leader for network capabilities and sponsor of women in leadership at Grant Thornton International Ltd., explained that “It’s clear that simply introducing policies is not enough to drive real progress on gender diversity. Businesses who are succeeding are those whose policies and practices are rooted in a genuine conviction of the benefit of diversity. Leaders must champion the cause and create inclusive cultures in which a wide range of voices are listened to and where every individual can flourish if we are ever to see real change. Leaders are the only ones who can really press for progress.”

“Policies are very important but they’re part of a larger ecosystem that you have to evaluate to find opportunities to really support gender diversity,” acknowledged Nicole Blythe, Grant Thornton’s national managing partner, People Experience. “If the belief in making a change doesn’t come through from leadership, then those policies are not going to retain people in the organizations. A policy isn’t the answer, it’s got to be a policy that’s really believed in.”

Companies reported they are motivated to introduce gender equality policies primarily to live up to their organizational values (73%), attract and keep employees (66%) and fulfill the vision of senior leadership (57%). Recruitment and retention are strategic priorities for businesses, and diversity in leadership has become a core element of company branding. However, businesses say the barriers to introducing policies include the complexity of translating good intentions into practice (24%) and stereotypes about gender roles (23%).

Chart: gender equality policies and practices businesses have in place Organizational values can be a driving force of real change for organizations and serve as a framework to drive action. Blythe noted that Grant Thornton focuses on six global values: collaboration, leadership, excellence, agility, respect and responsibility.

“The fact we’re able to refer to values that are part of the culture we all ascribe to eliminates some of the cumbersome noise,” she added. “You’re able to move more quickly. One of our core values is agility and we demonstrate that a lot in how we move forward.”

To really drive change, diversity-focused practices have to be embedded throughout the organization encompassing everything from talent processes to business processes. “We have to ask if we’re embedding inclusivity and diversity thinking, and if it is being integrated into the compensation and promotion process,” Blythe said. “We’ve layered it into training programs, such as our leadership academies. Embedding diversity from talent acquisition to succession planning has really been beneficial to us, but we’re always raising awareness to ensure that it will be incorporated into each stage of the process.”

Tony Fuller, Grant Thornton’s director, Diversity & Inclusion/Recruiting agreed that in order to move the needle in the right direction when it comes to diversity initiatives, businesses need to make it a priority. “Firms are making a concerted effort to diversify their organizations (some better than others) but are lacking the dedicated resources at the top and tools and data within to move the meter,” he said. “Organizations have to continue to enhance standards for recruiting practices, including mandatory training in implicit bias; review alignment of developmental opportunities and promotion and retention practices.”

Like any other business objective, accountability is an essential factor in achieving diversity success. Dr. Tiffany Yates, Grant Thornton’s senior manager, Organizational Strategy, suggested that “the CEO and his or her team should have a performance metric that is wrapped around culture, diversity and inclusion. When you measure and track the implementation of diversity initiatives at the top, it will become a higher priority.”

However, she also noted that in order to hold someone accountable, the appropriate resources and level of empowerment needs to be provided to really drive change.

“Organizations should incentivize and motivate people to be bold and make changes in order to promote a diverse culture,” Yates suggested. “Rewards and recognition structures need to be more intentional about incorporating it into your rewards philosophy, compensation and performance management.”

Chart: Barriers that prevent gender equality policies and practices from being introducedBlythe further explained that several leaders in Grant Thornton who have stated their personal 2018 goals include increasing the diversity — often gender diversity specifically — of their senior leadership team “We call those priorities ‘purple chips’. When you have a leader who announces their purple chips, that drives values through the rest of the organization. If you say something is your priority openly, people will hold you accountable for it. That’s not just your superiors, but others in the organization.”

Diversity is not a light switch that can be turned on and off. It requires a long-term commitment throughout every level of the organization, but in particular by senior leadership. While it may require CEOs to exit their comfort zone, discussing diversity and inclusion among employees and stakeholders is critical.

More than any individual policy, commitment by senior leadership is a critical factor in driving change. Increasingly, CEOs are understanding that they must take an active role in directing the diversity and inclusion agenda. For example, CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, a coalition of more than 350 CEOs representing 85 industries, nonprofits and academic institutions, aims to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

These senior leaders understand well that committing themselves to diverse leadership makes them more successful and allows them to sidestep risk. BlackRock recently asked all Russell 1000 companies with fewer than two female directors to explain how that aligns with their long-term strategies. The result was that embracing board diversity also helps organizations capture emerging market opportunities.

And investors are paying more attention to companies’ diversity strategies. They’re looking at how companies are translating intent into action and taking note of their success rate. According to the 2018 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index (GEI), represented firms report women holding 26% of senior leadership positions, 19% of executive officer roles and earned 46% of promotions.

Changing minds: Policies and people How can organizations move beyond talk to action that will drive real change for diversity and inclusion initiatives? While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, here are eight powerful steps to get started.

  1. Expand your definition of diversity training. Traditional diversity training can actually impede diversity efforts by focusing on differences rather than offering strategies to overcome conscious biases.
  2. Apply multiple practices and measures. Instead of poring over turnover rates and other metrics, measure ROI based on different indicators and granular information, such as employee responses and consistent feedback about policies. For example, chemistry giant BASF has implemented a talent dashboard that allows leaders to gauge diversity and inclusion progress by asking comprehensive questions about their thoughts on the hiring process and retention trends. This encourages employees to voice their opinions and ensures multiple voices are heard.
  3. Lead by example. Ensure that leaders model diversity and inclusion in the workplace to set the tone for the rest of the organization. That includes taking advantage of the various processes and policies in place intended to foster inclusion.
  4. Set specific, measurable goals. It’s important that senior leaders set specific goals and targets. Grant Thornton’s Blythe said, “We set a goal that by 2015, 20% of our partners would be female. We hit that target in 2016, and I’m convinced we wouldn’t have done it if we hadn’t come together as a senior leadership team to live by that goal, to evaluate any actions that may influence progress, and ultimately to hold ourselves accountable.”
  5. Recruit advocates within the organization. For example, Grant Thornton sponsors 8 business resource groups, or BRGs, focused on cultivating a culture of inclusion. Each has a senior leadership team member acting as an advocate. “They are the voice within senior leadership for that particular group, and so everyone is represented,” Blythe said. “That brings another dimension to the conversation when decisions are being made about promotions and compensation. It’s creating a culture of respect, so these courageous conversations can happen, and members of the senior leadership team can be held accountable.”
  6. Focus on retention as well as recruitment. A recent Forbes Insights survey of more than 300 executives of large global companies found that 65 percent claimed to have a plan in place to recruit a diverse workforce — but only 44 percent employ retention programs. Recruiting a diverse workforce is only the first step; you must then work to leverage and nurture it.
  7. Recognize underlying differences. When designing processes, take into account gender differences. For example, research suggests that men and women may view the hiring process differently – men may see it as being influenced by relationships and advocacy, while women see it as being more rigidly based on qualifications.
  8. Change processes, not people. Individuals are complex; organizations should look towards understanding them and designing processes to meet them where they are. This involves setting measurable goals based on analysis of where women and other diverse groups of employees are getting stalled in their career progression. It also requires defining those behaviors necessary to achieve desired outcomes and identifying and enabling drivers of those behaviors. For example, if internal research reveals that, men will apply for a new role with only 40% certainty they will do well, while women will not apply unless they are 80% certain, the organization can implement practices designed to get women to that 80% threshold more quickly. These include offering additional training or enhancing potential applicants’ understanding of the role to make it easier to compare one’s skillset with that required.

A strategy for facilitating diversity and inclusion is not just a nice to have, but a business imperative today. Organizations must think about it in terms of a competitive advantage and a way to attract and retain top talent while driving future growth. Policies and processes play an important role but an effective strategy starts and stops with people and a leadership commitment to driving real change.

Ready to get started designing for diversity and inclusion? Grant Thornton can help. Reach out to our professionals below.

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Contacts Erica O’Malley
Erica O’Malley

Partner, Organizational Strategy
T: +1 312 602 8786


Dr. Tiffany Yates
Dr. Tiffany Yates

Senior Manager, Organizational Strategy
T: +1 678 515 2314