The business benefits of workplace inclusion and workforce diversity have been well explored and described. Many companies – global, international, and domestic – have been working on this for years, and in some cases for decades.
And yet there’s still a problem.
The reasons initiatives are not delivering intended outcomes have also been well explored and described.
And yet there’s still a problem.
So what’s going on? Is there another reason that companies large and small are failing at this?
One that just isn’t being openly discussed?
The elephant in the room is much more insidious: conflicts of interest.
It’s the shameful corporate reality that never gets discussed and underlies the lack of progress.
I can relate to this personally. I decided to come out as gay after serving for 17 years with an employer. Having risen to a senior executive position leading a large business unit, I had decided I needed to live my authentic self at work. I had to decide whether I was willing to accept the potential consequences of coming out in the forms of at-work discrimination, career stagnation, maybe even having to leave the company.
I sought assurances that the company’s statements on inclusion and diversity were authentic and not just “box-ticking”. With other LGBT+ colleagues, we formed the first LGBT+ employee resource group in the company anywhere in the world. We participated in the Stonewall UK workplace equality index and worked across diversity groups to bring about change. I then began to see, experience, and, regrettably, became personally complicit, in these conflicts of interest. I saw first-hand the conflict between the actions needed to bring about change and the personal impacts that they can have. It creates a pernicious pressure on employees of all levels that the employer allowed to persist, and whether consciously or not exploits.
This is the fifth article in a six-part series of posts that explores this more:
- The benefits of equity, workplace inclusion, and workforce diversity and what’s going wrong.
- Why it’s going wrong
- What’s not being discussed and the elephant in the room
- Corporate conflicts of interest
- Personal conflicts of interest
- Conclusions and actions
In addition to the personal implications of those corporate conflicts, individuals are also personally conflicted.
- Personal Brand and Reputation
Those working in D&I are directly or indirectly incentivised to generate “good news”.
Good news for employees leads to opportunities for recognition, pay, and promotion.
Good news for external consultants generates referrals for new work, market reputation, case studies, and more business.
Good news for executive sponsors and diversity leaders extends externally to “top 10” rankings and awards and future career opportunities.
Good news for senior executives leads to the next big job, invitations to join industry boards, to become non-executive directors, and so on.
This creates a context for confirmation bias; seeking, digesting, and lending credence to the evidence that suits the “desirable outcome”.
The agents of change are conflicted. They all have to consider very carefully whether they mention anything that isn’t overtly positive. Doing so would undermine their achievements and credibility, and their reputation is at stake.
- Career Risk
Bringing attention to bad news is rarely viewed positively in companies. So, the reverse of the desire for positive reputation and success, and the consequences, also applies. Doing this involves personal risk-taking. Often this is by those who are already suffering the consequences of a non-inclusive workplace or unequal working practices. They are likely most impacted and have the greatest visibility of those inequalities.
Those who bring attention to bad news are taking a potentially great personal risk. That could be low diversity in certain teams or non-inclusive management behaviour.
Executives may not want to hear the news, and the D&I practitioners may actively seek to suppress the information.
Individuals are conflicted. They can see that bringing attention to bad news, no matter how essential that is for change to be delivered, may put their career or job at risk.
- The (Career) Price of Progress
Progress on equity in companies is going require change – possibly great change. Changes are likely needed across the enterprise – the business processes, company policies and benefits, the technology and tools that are used, as well as the people.
Some people will see these changes as creating an opportunity for themselves or those around them.
Others, often those in the positions of influence that are depended upon to bring about change, may not see these changes as positive. There may be an increase in competition for roles as diverse candidates are encouraged to apply. Some may miss out on a pay increase as the pay discrepancy of others who have been historically under-compensated is addressed. Line managers may have to change working practices to take out discrimination. Line managers’ jobs may become harder with the inclusion of new equity, diversity, and inclusion objectives. Recruitment teams may have to work harder to find diverse candidates. Enabling change in a corporate isn’t easy.
Line managers are conflicted. The changes required will likely, at least in the short-term, create more work, or reduce one’s opportunities. Those impacted are likely to be far less enthusiastic about implementing such change when they perceive that there’s a personal price to pay for the benefit of others.
These can be summarised as “Good news only, avoid personal risk”
Catch up on all of the other parts that make up this blog series below:
Steven has extensive experience in strategic executive leadership having led large business units at Fujitsu. Steven has had full and operational delivery responsibility for $1bn annual revenue business, including sales / growth, of full-service range (consultancy and change programmes, to operational IT services) to multiple clients. Leading business through changes in strategic direction, crisis management, transformational turnarounds especially those delivering business critical services to clients such as Public Sector / National Government. Steven engages well with C-suite executives and senior stakeholders, including in previous roles with UK Government Cabinet Ministers.