Getting senior leaders to buy-in to your diversity and inclusion work

So you’ve identified that more can be done in your organisation to improve inclusiveness, but you’re struggling to get senior leaders to support your plans. Top-down support is crucial for the success of D&I work, so how do you get this buy-in?

This National Inclusion Week we’re reflecting on the key reasons why leadership might not be prioritising inclusion work, and things you can do to overcome these barriers.

  1. Reasons senior leaders don’t prioritise diversity and inclusion
  2. Raising awareness of D&I issues
  3. Building a business case for investing in inclusion
  4. Prioritising and infusing D&I into your organisation

The reasons senior leaders don’t always prioritise diversity and inclusion

Senior leaders who don’t buy-in to inclusion work usually fall into one of three categories:

  • They don’t know that there’s an issue
  • They know there’s an issue, but they don’t believe it’s important to address
  • They know there’s an issue, they just don’t have the resources to make it a priority

These individuals  are typically responsible for growth. Put simply, this can take the form of profit and share value for commercial organisations, or funds and reach for public sector and charity organisations. 

The trick is to make sure senior leaders know about diversity and inclusion issues in the organisation, and present the facts in a way that resonates. If it’s profits your leaders care about, show them how much more profitable inclusive companies can be. If it’s reach, show them examples where companies have failed to be inclusive and suffered reputational blows as a result. Read on to find out how to appeal to each of the three types of senior leader.

How to raise senior leadership’s awareness of diversity and inclusion issues 

Senior leaders set the tone for cultures in organisations, but it’s often the same leaders who know least about the reality of workplace cultures. Senior leaders are least likely to witness harassment and inappropriate behaviour take place, and with reporting  levels being low they’re also unlikely to be told about it. 

It’s possible that your leadership team is being asked to lead and develop strategies to address an issue that they have little experience in, and little knowledge of altogether. 

If this is the case, part of the solution might just be raising awareness of the issue. To do this, consider these actions:

  • Tell the story: By gathering or testimonials. Understand how many people in your organisation are impacted by potential inclusion issues. The best approach is basing this on actual experiences reported by your employees. However if your team lacks diversity, getting a small number of people to speak up about their experiences can be difficult, in which case, look at the demographic breakdown of your team and use prevalence data to support your argument. 

For example, 71% of women working in restaurants have been sexually assaulted at work - this kind of data can be really powerful in convincing senior leaders that there may be a problem they don’t yet know about.

Building a business case for investing in inclusion

Good leaders see the proven value in creating an inclusive workplace. Others need a little encouragement, and whilst they know there are inclusion issues in every organisation, they may not be doing anything about it within their own. Engaging these leaders can be tricky, because the strategic objectives they are choosing to pursue will also be vital to achieving success. 

Really it comes down to demonstrating value.

There are clear financial benefits that can help you to build a business case for employers, but your case doesn’t need to stop at calculating your ROI. Here are a few additional factors that can help to strengthen your business case when approaching senior leaders:

  • Inclusion has a positive impact on profitability: The latest report by McKinsey showed that gender diversity in executive teams can improve profits by up to 25%, and racially diverse teams can improve profits by 36%. These numbers aren’t negligible. 
  • More inclusive environments foster productivity: When employees feel included, and safe at work, they are more capable of focusing their energy on their performance. When companies spearhead inclusion and diversity, they can benefit from a 31% uplift in tangible business performance.
  • Inclusive teams are more innovative: To create a culture of innovation, you need the best talent and an environment that encourages people to share ideas, good or bad. You need people to feel part of your team, and willing to share their thoughts for the better of the company. Inclusion sits at the heart of this, and 51% of people agree that inclusion is key to driving innovation.
  • Make it about the consumer: Many consumers now are actively supporting businesses that demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion. It’s something they are actively looking for in marketing, and inclusive and diverse advertising increases the likelihood of purchase and affiliation with brands. To create inclusive marketing strategies though, you need to have the right people in the room.
  • Focus on your talent pipeline: The upcoming generation are very vocal about seeking employers with a diverse workforce. In fact, 83% of Gen Z candidates say that a company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is important when choosing an employer. If your company isn’t on this same journey, you’ll probably miss out on the best candidates.

Prioritising and infusing D&I into your organisation

Diversity and inclusion has become incredibly popular in recent years, however the role of ‘DEI lead’, or similar titles, is relatively new. Not all organisations have built this role into their infrastructure. 

The reality for many people working in inclusion is that there’s more work to be done than there is capacity to actually do it.  

If resource is the issue, here are three key tips for time poor teams, and how senior management can support you to be as effective as possible:

  • Outsource

Bringing in external support is a great way to save time, a wealth of experience, best in class examples of how to deliver effectively, and a new perspective that your company may not have considered. Employees may also feel more confident speaking up about issues to an external organisation rather than through existing internal processes.

  • Prioritise

The truth is, you can’t fix everything all at once. You’ll be restricted by time and capacity. To manage this, prioritise one issue at a time. Progress is still progress. Identify the issues that are having the biggest impact on your team, and address those first. 

Major events; internal or external, may shine a light on different issues that tempt you to veer off course. In these circumstances, assess the risk and relevance to your organisation. Is this something that you were aware of when you planned your strategy? Why wasn’t it prioritised then, and is that reasoning still valid now? A well prepared strategy can help keep you focused when the uncertainty of the world knocks on your door.

  • Communicate

Prioritising your action is reasonable, so long as you communicate clearly what it is, and why you are asking senior leaders to focus on a particular area of D&I first. Onboarding people on to your journey can create patience, acceptance, and support from people across the organisation, including senior leaders.

The key is to know the room you’re walking into. Know if a strong business case is going to be built upon financial measures, people measures, or just by having a clear and easy to understand plan of action. If your job is awareness, you need to be prepared slightly differently to if your job is to prove value.

For more advice on encouraging buy in from senior leaders, take a look at this blog on proving ROI for HR investments.

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