Diversity and respect for human rights should not be a spectator sport. Yet, recent reporting indicates that is precisely how some men on Wall Street are responding to the #MeToo movement. They are avoiding dinner or one-on-one meetings with female colleagues. One wealth advisor stated that even hiring a woman is “an unknown risk” these days.
#MeToo is a challenge that requires difficult conversations. The same holds for other sensitive questions of human rights. The last thing we need is for people to play it safe and stay on the sidelines. Diversity and human rights are an opportunity to be embraced, not a risk to be managed.
Diversity and human rights are especially important to keep in mind as we observe International Human Rights Month. This month marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The spirit of the declaration is one of inclusiveness, and respect for the dignity of every individual and every voice. Forward-thinking business leaders will proactively engage in difficult conversations around diversity and human rights as a growth opportunity instead of a PR or HR issue.
Step forward rather than stand back
The case of Wall Street and #MeToo is a perfect illustration of the cost of playing it safe. The financial sector is in dire need of greater gender diversity, and more diversity in general. Men dominate executive positions in finance to the tune of 85%. Given those numbers, women can benefit from male allies and mentors, but that will not happen if men retreat out of a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.
Experts find that a fear of saying something wrong also holds back crucial conversations about diversity and race in the workplace. Conversations about race can be uncomfortable, but we have to learn not to shy away from this discomfort. Stepping forward on race means being color-cognizant and not color-blind. It means reframing difficult conversations as learning opportunities.
From diversity to inclusion
Being proactive rather than reactive on diversity involves moving from a quantitative approach to a qualitative one, from diversity to inclusion. Having your workforce reflect a range of demographic differences is a start. However, the real challenge is ensuring that people with different backgrounds and different perspectives feel genuinely welcomed.
The first step, diversity, is about representation. The second step, inclusion, is about participation.
Inclusion must be proactive. It requires leadership to reach out to those who have traditionally been excluded from positions of power and ask them about the work environment and ask if they feel their perspective is welcomed. As Andrés Tapia writes in The Inclusion Paradox, diversity programs have mainly focused on getting people who are different in the door. While many companies “seek to portray themselves as being open to a workforce that looks different, they have done little to adjust to a workforce that thinks different.”
Inclusion and innovation
True inclusiveness is where the power of diversity lies. In an inclusive workplace, people feel valued because of their differences, not in spite of them. A sense of belonging empowers them to share the point of view that comes from their unique experiences. A diverse range of backgrounds and life experiences is an asset for today’s organization—yet that asset is only of value when employees feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to the workplace.
Building on strengths has long been recognized by positive psychology as an effective business strategy, and Gallup recommends specifically employing it in the pursuit of diversity and inclusion. Framing differences as strengths encourage people to feel valued not just for what they do, but also for who they are. Not surprisingly, Gallup finds that teams using strength assessment as a development tool scored higher on inclusion tests.
Organizations that can translate a diversity of representation into a diversity of thought will be a step ahead. Research finds that diverse teams outperform homogenous teams in problem-solving. According to a McKinsey study, companies that score in the top 25% for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above the industry average.
To tap into the power of a diverse workforce, business leaders need to go beyond compliance, beyond diversity and implicit bias training. To create an organizational culture that truly celebrates differences, they must be comfortable with the uncomfortable conversations that ensue from different perspectives on the world.
#MeToo is just the latest example of a human rights issue that has exploded in the workplace after years of politely trying to avoid and step around it. The answer to this and similar challenges is not to retreat from conflict and play it safe. The answer is more diversity, more inclusiveness, more conversation.
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Published on Forbes on Dec. 20, 2018.