Why Diversity is Still a Business Challenge

I can recall the first time I heard of the concept of “diversity” put on the corporate agenda. It was 1988, when I was a young manager in P&G USA 27 years ago. The song Don’t Worry, Be Happy was topping the charts! In the fast-paced world we live in today, this was figuratively centuries ago!

And still here we are, and diversity is still top of the agenda, still a challenge for nearly all businesses.

This begs the question “Why?” since the business benefits are proven time and time again and are irrefutable. Diverse organizations made up of widely varying people are more creative and innovative; they win in the market by outsmarting and out-innovating the competition. They have stronger organizations through tapping into wider pools of talent  — they don’t limit themselves to selected pools of candidates. And they better understand their customers and hence meet their needs. I mean, if a company truly wants to market and sell to all Filipinos, then it has to intrinsically view all consumer segments as equal and recruit talent from across the spectrum, including provincial students, Muslims, and differing ethnicities.

Yet, despite the crystal-clear data, in a world of data-driven management of the business, we still cannot seem to crack through the glass ceiling and solve the diversity dilemma. If it is so clearly a competitive edge for business and costs nothing more to implement a diversity strategy (and I would argue that adopting a diversity strategy leads to lower costs!), why the struggle?

Some would argue that this is due to the fact many use a narrow classification of diversity. For example, many companies stop solely at gender diversity and measuring the male/female ratios. This is indeed important. But those who truly embrace diversity know it is much deeper than this. Steve Jobs was the definition of diversity, even being a “white male.” Diversity is, at the end of the day, about getting different people who think and see things differently. Gender is one, but only one driver. There is ethnicity. Religion. Social class. Background. Sexual orientation. Educational history.  It’s a long list. A company whose commitment to diversity is limited to hiring men and women from the same two or three campuses will always lose to the one that takes diversity far deeper than gender alone. Yes, this is an important element in taking diversity to a new level, but taken alone it simply does not explain why it remains such a challenge.

The real reason is provocative. Painful. Controversial. And strikes at the core of many.

How many times in the US did I see colleagues give speeches on diversity and embrace an African-American employee onstage, and then at 5 p.m. head home to their lily-white neighborhoods and lily-white lives? Sure, diversity is okay in the workplace… but do I want it in my home? In my family? In my life? Well, no frigging way!

It’s the ultimate hypocrisy. And because this is how many business leaders truly feel, deep down, this manifests itself in an ongoing diversity challenge. Until we can welcome diversity into our homes, into our private lives, we cannot say we embrace diversity. Because we don’t. Diversity is a 24/7 thing, it’s not solely a 9-to-5 phenomenon.

Let’s look at the picture accompanying this article. Here is a young white girl passionately kissing a young black boy. How do you feel about this? Is it “wrong” in your mind? This is someone’s little girl. And this is someone’s little boy. Now, imagine that is your little girl or little boy. How do you feel? Are you upset? Repulsed? Hoping it never happens to you? Let’s be blunt: if this happens to you, and you are upset and feel betrayed by this, then how can you look in the mirror and say you value diversity? Diversity is diversity. You can’t be committed to diversity and yet say, “I am fine having diversity in the office but screw it when I get home at night.”

How can a parent who comes home and pressures their children to “only date and marry within a given ethnicity” ever truly embrace diversity? Clearly, deep down, this parent sends a signal that some ethnicities are better than others. Or one religion is superior to another. Sure, they will argue they simply value having “the same culture.” But this is shallow. Marrying outside one’s culture doesn’t mean you lose yours. And what about the benefits of learning someone else’s culture? It’s a defense full of holes. At the core, it is a bias, and all bias in one shape or form hinders a drive for diversity.

How can any of us tell our organizations we value diversity, yet we refuse to live anywhere but in cookie-cutter neighborhoods all with people “just like me”? So let me get this straight: it’s okay to sell to black people, or employ maybe a few black people, but never to live near them?

How can we claim we embrace diversity when we stubbornly continue to recruit on the same two or three campuses, because “that’s where we studied, and the best talent comes from there”? Do we really think every provincial student has the means and opportunities to come to Manila and study in our most prestigious schools? Do we not believe in the concept of “diamond in the rough”? Better yet, what about a college dropout like Jobs? Would you even look at the guy?

How can a sales leader claim to embrace diversity yet refuse to employ a single Muslim salesperson, even in Muslim regions in Mindanao? Who better to call on Muslim customers than someone who is immersed in the culture? So again, it is okay to sell to Muslims and take their money as payment, but not okay to employ them?

The list goes on and on, unfortunately. Everyone has a good excuse. But let’s face it. They simply don’t embrace diversity. Value it. Live it. At the foundation is a bias. And that’s the barrier.

The principle is very simple: Diversity is not a 9-to-5 dynamic; it’s 24/7. You can only truly embrace diversity when you welcome it into your home, and into your life. If you don’t, well then, this will always be a barrier. And this is the issue. Too many leaders, in too many companies, harbor these kinds of biases. They can talk all they want about how many black or Chinese friends they have or the like, but at the end of the day, they wall off their private life from diversity and this directly implies a bias — a feeling of, “I don’t want diversity to be too close to me” and keeping it at arm’s length.

And this is why we still have a diversity challenge. Painful, but true.

All of us as business leaders have to look in the mirror. Diversity is good for business. Good for the bottom line. And we don’t serve our businesses when we don’t embrace diversity. So we must look in the mirror.  And decide, do we really “walk the talk,” or do we simply “talk the talk”?

Yes, I sound like I am preaching from my soapbox. And believe me, I have looked in the mirror many times. I have confronted diversity in my family and private life head-on. I know where I stand. And I know what is in my heart.

What about the young couple in that picture, which I actually took in my living room?

It’s a fine young Nigerian man.

And that little girl?

That’s my little girl. My daughter.

And I could not be more proud.