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 fourth 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
The most fundamental and underlying issue is a conflict of interest. This insidiously undermines all other workforce diversity and workplace inclusion issues.
To make it worse, that conflict of interest is known and not acknowledged or addressed by most working in this field.
That conflict of interest applies to all of these stakeholders and can be explored in two broad categories – those driven by the corporate machinery, and those driven by personal factors.
The primary corporate conflicts of interest are:
- Disrepute and Corporate Reputation
Individuals at all levels in the company are employees. All bound by obligations to “not bring the company into disrepute”.
This is often explicitly stated in contracts of employment, else it’s implicit. Importantly those conditions are often interpreted to apply to conduct outside or away from work as well as inside.
The employee is conflicted. Employees at all levels are prevented from saying anything negative that could affect the company’s reputation. For example, about how inclusive the workplace culture may be, or its levels of workforce diversity – as it could put their career in jeopardy.
- Confidentiality and Non-disclosure
Most contracts of employment include confidentiality clauses. Confidential information cannot be shared outside of the company and rightly so, for most situations. Most companies however categorise negative information as confidential.
The employee is conflicted. Employees of all levels are prevented from sharing anything that is considered confidential. For example, pay disparities or unequal representation of minority groups.
- Marketing and Recruitment
Marketing departments realise that equity and inclusion initiatives can generate good messaging. That applies to business-to-business and business-to-consumer customers. At the same time, executives and Human Resources departments are keen to portray the company positively to be attractive as employers.
This leads to executives looking for good news stories, participating in awards processes to generate good PR, and “virtue signalling” to send the right messages. The real changes that are needed are likely to be far less glamorous – so don’t get done.
Marketing, HR and executive leadership are all conflicted. As programs that generate good messaging and “PR” are the only ones that are listened to, they become the external message – which may be markedly different from reality in the company.
Catch up on all of the other parts that make up this blog series below:
Part 5: Conflict of Interest (Personal)
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.
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