More Important Than Ever: Addressing Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

By Randy Myers

Business leaders often spend a lot of time trying to hire people they believe will fit in well with their organization—people with shared values, backgrounds, and experiences. Then, they profess dismay when their team does not seem to be coming up with fresh ideas.

Smart organizations have figured out that diversity in the workplace can be a benefit rather than a handicap. But too often, says Doctor Tony Byers who serves as an executive in residence with Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations Executive Education, they ignore the vital role that inclusion plays. Yes, employees with diverse backgrounds and experiences need to be represented in the workforce. But employers will not realize the full value of that diversity until all employees feel free to be their authentic selves at work—to speak from their unique perspective, to be heard, and to feel valued and respected.

“Having both diverse and inclusive mindset leads to success because it gets us to the point where we start to more fully understand the marketplace and the things that are happening around us,” Byers said in a presentation at the 2020 SVIA Fall Forum. “We start to challenge our own perspective about what it means to be successful, and what it means to be a part of our environment.”

But do not just take his word for it. Byers said research has shown that stocks of organizations that strive to have inclusive cultures outperform their peers by 26%. Inclusive companies also grow faster and are more productive.

Byers has worked on the front lines of diversity and inclusion, formerly serving as director of global diversity and inclusion for Starbucks Corp. and prior to that working in the same field for other multinational organizations. His book, “The Multiplier Effect of Inclusion: How Diversity & Inclusion Advances Innovation and Drives Growth,” was published in 2018.

Diversity and inclusion matter more than ever in 2020, Byers told his SVIA audience, as the nation grapples with the racial unrest and social protests triggered by the deaths of several Black Americans at the hands of police. He sees the national discussion about racial justice being not just a moment but a movement, and he encouraged every person and organization to lean into it rather than away from it. For businesses, he said, that can mean going beyond pithy statements to leading by example and providing opportunities for employees to share their feelings about what is going on. While all that may be uncomfortable, he said, it is okay. In fact, he said, feeling uncomfortable is natural in that situation. And, he pointed out, it is something many employees feel at work every day.

Inclusion is more than a feeling, though, Byers explained, it is a behavior. Or more accurately, behaviors. He pointed to seven that are characteristic of inclusive organizations. They encourage curiosity. They communicate well and share information. They create environments where employees can challenge each other safely. They promote collaboration. They give credit for employees’ contributions, large and small. Their individual leaders act as change agents willing to think and act differently and creatively. And finally, inclusive organizations strive for consistency in all these areas. It is when organizations pair inclusion with diversity this way, Byers said, that they reap what he calls the multiplier effect—actions and behaviors that lead to growth both at a personal and organizational level.

Pursuing diversity and inclusion is becoming even more important in today’s environment, Byers said. Consumers are starting to pay more attention to whether brands and businesses live up to the values they preach, and leading businesses are paying more attention to it when looking for suppliers and business partners.

Many of the nation’s most talented workers are paying attention, too. Byers recalled an incident about four years ago after Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by a member of the St. Anthony, Minnesota, police department during a traffic stop. Byers was sitting in on a meeting of young interns, mostly people of color, who were discussing what had happening and sharing their feelings about it. After a while, their phones started pinging. It turned out that the interns belonged to a larger cohort of young people from the top  MBA schools in the country. Other members of that group were sending text messages asking what their colleagues’ organizations were doing about what had just happened. Many were responding that their organizations were doing nothing; indeed, had not even acknowledged it.

In the group he was with, Byers said, people were able to write back that their organization had found a room for them to talk, and that some of the company’s business leaders had visited with them to reiterate the organization’s values and stress the importance of having a diverse culture.

“The last text I saw,” Byers said, “was from a person at another organization who wrote, ‘I obviously made the wrong choice in organizations. I will not be here after the end of my internship.’”

By making the sometimes, uncomfortable decision to talk about race and other divisive issues, Byers said, organizations can pave the way to a better tomorrow.

“We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he said, “so that we can create the environment that will allow us to be successful—for ourselves, our teams, our communities, this country, and the world.”