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Nov 5, 2020
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Why do we still make illogical and counterproductive arguments for diversity and inclusion?

I explored this question recently at ERE Digital 2.0, and below is a summation of my remarks — which actually originally stem from an article I wrote years ago for TLNT called “The Diversity Paradox No One talks About.” 

The impetus for that article was something that AT&T’s Diversity Officer had said at the time. She had stated that: “It makes good business sense to have an employee base that looks like our customer base.” I suspected many of her peers agreed. I suspect you might, too. Her statement is exactly what you’d expect a D&I leader to say.

But here’s the problem: If it’s true that your workers should reflect your customers for your business to thrive, then this creates a pretty twisted paradox that scrapes at the core of diversity and inclusion. Because what if most of your customers are white? What if they are women? What if they are Black? 

The Mirror Test

Well, if most of your customers are Black women, then you might be Fashion Fair, a cosmetics company that was started specifically to cater to women of color. And as the company still points out, its focus “remains dedicated to offering products, services and education that address the unique complexion needs for women of color.”

So based on the notion of hiring employees that mirror your customers, putting legality aside, does that mean that Fashion Fair shouldn’t hire a white male like me? 

A while back, I posed this conundrum of the mirror test to a diversity chief of a well-known nonprofit. She replied that every company eventually wants to expand into new markets. 

But her answer was a copout. Again, take Fashion Fair. It remains committed to its core customers. All of which is to say that, yes, companies are making greater strides to bring in diverse people. And yes, that’s great. But using the reasoning that employees and customers should mirror each other doesn’t make sense at a basic level. It also sends a message that workplace diversity is not an inherent necessity. 

And so the overarching point is that we really need to pause before we keep regurgitating the same arguments for diversity because they are not necessarily logical.

The Case for a Homogenous Workplace?

I’ll go a step further. They are a mockery to the very mission of diversity and inclusion. 

What do I mean by this? I keep seeing study after study, especially a semi-recent one by Mercer, touting the business case for hiring for diversity: Workers are more productive and companies are more profitable when employers have diverse and inclusive workforces. I don’t disagree with that.

But what I do have a problem with is the continued use of this research to convince executives that diversity is important.

Let me ask you: What if the research did not bear out the business case? What if repeated findings were to show that hiring for diversity is bad for business? What if research showed that diversity were bad for the bottom line? Does that mean that there would be a business case for keeping workplaces homogenous. Does that mean we now have a business case against diversity?

Contradicting the Spirit of Diversity

The problem with constantly pushing a business case for diversity is that it completely contravenes the entire spirit of diversity and inclusion. Yet it’s something we do a lot in business. 

We make business cases for recognizing people, for example. But if your company’s leaders need a business case to praise and recognize colleagues, you’ve got far bigger problems that extend well beyond mere recognition.

Likewise, an organization that chooses to hire diverse candidates because doing so is good for business also has some major issues that go beyond hiring or diversity.

Hey, though, I get it. If a business case is what it takes for top leadership to value hiring for diversity — even if it’s an illogical argument — then you might say, so be it. You know, whatever it takes. As long as the end result is a more diverse workforce, and thereby a more successful company, then great! 

Who cares about the reasons for hiring for diversity as long as you’re actually hiring for diversity? I understand that logic. And truthfully, I see its value, but I’m conflicted. 

I’m conflicted because so many of us in HR talk a good game about humanizing this and humanizing that. But by relying on a Mercer study to guide diversity practices, I can’t help but feel that we are betraying the notion that diversity and inclusion should be an intrinsic part of how companies operate. 

Because D&I, DEI, whichever acronym you like is good for society and for humanity. Period. Hard stop.

And so while I’m glad and relieved that research shows that diversity translates into more dollars, I hate to think that someone’s gender identity, skin color, sexual orientation, religion, you name it boils down to a conduit for corporations to make coins.

And if that gets me labeled naive or hokey, I can live with that. 

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.