Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Diversity advice: sold like snake oil in the Wild West

February 2013

To propose the ‘business case’ for diversity is misleading. To me, a business case is meant to introduce something, yet to happen to an organisation, balancing reasons for and against a response. So treating diversity as if it has not yet happened is illogical.

Diversity is a non-negotiable fact of life for every business globally. Businesses, however, can choose to respond or not. The rationale to respond is very strong but, because it has traditionally been framed as an optional ‘business case’, it seems okay to opt out.

Most businesses take informed decisions based on costs and benefits. But with diversity, accessible, business-friendly information on which to base a decision is rare. Research points to the unhelpful ‘business case’ rationale as insufficiently compelling or businesslike.

In the current climate, businesses failing to respond risk missing an important opportunity, yet nobody evaluates the cost other than in terms of anti-discrimination lawsuits or payoffs. A more comprehensive analytical evidence base would provide a useful business resource.

Helpfully, policymakers at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) have published an initial ‘evidence’ round-up, through Economics ‘Occasional Paper’ (No 4), so someone takes it seriously. Although still mistitled ‘business case’, the analysis strays interestingly into the ‘moral case’, linked to equality law. But it also talks confusingly about a context where ‘culture/leadership can be thought of as an envelope’.

Diversity advisers are not sales people, but often have to act like them. It is unfortunate that a diversity adviser’s job vacancy usually seeks ‘powerful influencing skills’, ability to ‘make compelling presentations’, and ‘gravitas and conviction’ to ‘persuade and engage’ the board.

An alternative outlook could source those with more relevant skills to communicate a strategic vision and plan an effective whole-organisational response, working with executives to reinforce the value proposition and embed necessary change. This could attract differently skilled diversity advisers in business strategy, change and/or development, and systems thinking. Not HR, ‘objection handling’, sales, risk and compliance or other suggested prerequisites.

Advising on UK diversity is sometimes akin to selling snake oil in the Wild West. Nobody can prove it really works and it seems to cost a disproportionate amount of money. Laudably, international efforts are being made to align diversity specialists with that of other professionals, like legal or tax advisers. But it’s unlikely to enhance their professional credibility, or perceived value to society, until the circularity of the current approach is resolved.

Businesses should be able to access relevant hard evidence to make informed decisions, guided by their specialist advisers, about what response to diversity is appropriate. Until then, buyer beware!

Melanie Allison is director of Embankment Consulting

Guest Column | Global | Diversity

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