Enlisting Top Management Commitment to Diversity

Numerous studies cite the importance of top management commitment as a critical variable in successfully recruiting, hiring, retaining, developing, and advancing diverse employees. 1 If the top of the power structure in an organization is not committed, then a diversity initiative is unlikely to gain the momentum and rise high enough on the priority list to be taken seriously and to gain the attention and commitment of the middle and front line managers who will make it succeed.

Four strategies are effective for enlisting top managers in the diversity initiative. Two other strategies that are often employed tend to be ineffective. While written to executives, all of the strategies require HR, diversity, or other staff members to do the legwork and to present their approaches, data, conclusions, proposals, and recommendations to senior management.

Effective Strategies

Create a burning platform

The burning platform strategy creates enough “heat” to encourage executives to jump into a diversity commitment. They are ordinarily based on data analysis. Qualitative data about the perceptions and experiences of employees from underrepresented groups is often more powerful that quantitative data, even for the most analytic executives.

  • Listen to the stories of diverse employees’ journeys through the organization. Understand how their organizational journeys differ from those of top, often white male, managers.
  • Analyze archival data from the human resources data system, EEO-1 reports, and employee surveys.
  • Administer a diversity survey to employees or add diversity questions to an existing employee survey. In addition to a survey or in lieu of it, conduct interviews of top leaders and focus groups of employees by demographic group and status, e.g., Black, Hispanic, people with disabilities, and line, clerical, professional, manager, and supervisor.
  • Stand up a task force or series of task forces to dig into the current state of diversity and identify future opportunities for the organization. Typically, task forces are structured by demographic group, e.g., women, African American/ Black, Latino/Hispanic, Asian, LGBT, people with disabilities, and age, and incorporate focus groups, interviews, and archival data. IBM elegantly employed task forces.2

Present the results of data gathering and action recommendations to top management in a working session, the purpose of which is for top management to understand the current state of diversity in their organization, embrace the conclusions, and establish a plan of action for the next year or two. Including quotes from focus groups and interviews is particularly important for bringing the data alive and capturing the stories of diverse employees and the emotions they often feel.

Experience diversity

The primary goal of having top managers directly experience diversity is not awareness of diverse people, although that’s a vital goal, it’s self-awareness.

  • Mentor an employee from a different demographic group than your own, remaining open to what you can learn from them as much as what you can teach and counsel.
  • Sponsor an employee resource or affinity group that is composed of people different from you (and encourage other executives to do the same).
  • Volunteer to work with a community organization, largely composed of members of diverse populations, in a one-to-one relationship or serve on the Board of Directors. Board work is an ideal way to network and identify senior diverse candidates for recruitment.
  • Establish an internship program for diverse students and post-graduates.

Make small commitments

Executives don’t go from a zero commitment to full speed, they advance incrementally from uncommitted to allowing diversity to engaging with diversity to leading diversity. Small organizational commitments from executives can enhance their understanding of diversity and engage them deeply enough to raise their commitment to the next level.

  • Write a policy, philosophy, or values statement on employing diverse people and place it on the website and intranet.
  • Chair a diversity committee or council.
  • Apply for an award. The value isn’t so much in the winning, although that’s wonderful, it’s the focus that making an application puts on diversity and the feedback the organization receives from the award evaluators.

Go external

Clearly, bringing in respected voices from outside the organization or exposing your executive to other executives who have led successful diversity initiatives is a great way to raise their commitment level. Even better, assuming your organization has an element of real credibility in diversity, is to have them speak about diversity to an external audience. Nothing raises understanding, attention, and commitment better than speaking to a public forum.

  • Bring in outside executives and diversity experts who have made a deep and successful commitment to diversity to speak to you and the executive team.
  • Speak with an executive peer who is highly committed to diversity and has been successful. Retired executives, who have greater availability and the advantage of having a proven track record, are often more receptive than active executives.
  • Agree to speak on diversity at a conference or public forum. Conference planners love to have line executives speak.
  • Write an article that portrays a diversity program or initiative in the organization.

Largely Ineffective Strategies

Being Directed

Having the Board of Directors, owners, or the chief executive direct top managers to commit to diversity can work, but is not particularly desirable or sustainable. Because inclusion is so fundamental to diversity success, a diversity initiative should model inclusiveness, erring on the side of collaboration and consensus versus the use of authority. Managers who are directed to undertake actions to which they are not particularly committed are usually skilled at ducking their heads until other priorities take hold and the diversity initiative fades from view. The key difference is that in collaboration and consensus, everyone has an opportunity to express their point of view and have their voices heard and considered. This fosters engagement and engagement encourages more sustainable commitment. Sometimes, however, when no other approach is fruitful or when a powerful minority resists, a direct command may be necessary.

Business and Financial Arguments

Of the many times I have introduced executives to diversity and helped them build business cases, even those who are highly analytic and financially-focused, not one has committed to diversity purely for business or financial reasons. While the relationship between diversity and business outcomes must make sense to executives, they are usually more moved by employee perceptions, attitudes, and experiences related to diversity, especially when compared against benchmarks. Connectedness between diversity and business outcomes is a necessary gateway, but not a sufficient condition for commitment. Go back to “Listen to the stories of diverse employees’ journeys through the organization.”

1 See, for example, Susanne M. Bruyère, Disability Employment Policies and Practices in Private and Federal Sector Organizations, Cornell University, Program on Employment and Disability, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Ithaca, NY, March 2000; Michele E. A. Jayne and Robert L. Dipboye, “Leveraging Diversity to Improve Business Performance: Research Findings and Recommendations for Organizations,” Human Resource Management, Vol. 43, No. 4, Winter 2004, pp. 415-416; Stanley F. Slater, Robert A. Weigand, and Thomas J. Zwirlein, “The business case for commitment to diversity,” Business Horizons, Vol 51, Issue 3, May-June 2008, pp. 201-209.

2 David A. Thomas, “Diversity as Strategy,” Harvard Business Review, September 2004.