Why the Business Case for DEI Is Broken



“If we can just explain the business case, diversity and inclusion will be more likely.” 

For decades, DEI and business communities have peddled the dogma that if the business case for diversity was presented to leaders, they would be compelled to act.

The business case has been made clear. Leaders have been provided with the link between profit, innovation, and DEI, and yet, so little has changed. 

Leaning into the belief that business leaders are rational, singularly growth-minded people who respond to data and act accordingly, the business case brigade has ignored two key points:

Firstly, the self-interest of leaders themselves, who because of their own identities, see DEI changes as negatively impacting them and thus either resist or ignore DEI.

Secondly, and most importantly, as  Fearless Futures, a DEI education and consultancy firm shared with me, the business case itself betrays inclusion and equity principles. I couldn’t agree more. Here’s why.

The business case for DEI is broken

Narratives around the “business case” are dehumanizing not only because they value under-represented groups solely based on their potential to benefit business, but also because this added value derives from their experience of oppression, itself. By reinventing and repackaging the pain and trauma of oppression into profit, the business case argument essentializes and dehumanizes marginalized employees. 

Fearless Futures sees the business case as a bankrupt method and one we should divest from. I spoke to their Founder and CEO, Hanna Naima McCloskey, to learn more about how leaders can begin re-considering their business’ approach to diversity, equity and inclusion by examining how and if the following pointers factor in:

1. Leaders’ self-interest

When we look at who is in leadership positions, we see the outcomes of inequity: these roles are overwhelmingly occupied by folks from dominant groups (white, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, etc). Most folks who hold these advantaged identities don’t want to give up the power they are afforded by the status quo. The business case has been presented as a cure to this issue of self-interest, but while the benefits of DEI will be company-wide, the necessary changes to get there will likely impact people individually, and at the top, along the way.

McCloskey shared, “The business case, presented as a rational approach that can counter human emotion, ignores the fact that business leaders are still human. For many, there is deep resistance to the reality – which must be acknowledged to do DEI work – that certain leaders have achieved their roles and positions in part based on identities that are structurally advantaged in society. Many will hold deep beliefs about their ‘merit alone’, and will do everything they can to protect that, which unsurprisingly, includes no action for DEI no matter what the numbers may say”.

2. Business has relied on marginalized people for profit (and in many cases still does)

The “business case” argument also obscures that many businesses hire marginalized people already, as they are more readily exploitable and can be paid poverty wages. Restaurants ‘benefit’ from ‘diversity’ because marginalized folks receive the lowest wages.  We can see this through history, too. Slavery was maintained precisely because of its business case–exploitation and extraction  is profitable. Arguments that focus on business profitability therefore are rarely inherently beneficial to marginalized people as a practical matter. 

McCloskey told me, “If the ‘business case’ benefit emerges, it is often those individuals already in positions of power who will reap the material rewards: owners and senior people who receive large bonuses or company stocks. In this regard, the very purpose of the business case is to further compensate those who have already gained from the status quo.” 

3. There may be cost involved that will be impossible to recoup 

The reality of DEI is that attracting, recruiting and retaining marginalized communities will almost always require investment of time and money. You may need to redesign your office so that disabled folks can move through them with ease, your sick pay policy might need to change and your parental leave policy will cost you more money.  

But why should marginalized employees have more to prove, and a greater burden on their shoulders to justify their existence in your workplace, than someone else who happens to have identities that society advantages? To McCloskey’s point, they shouldn’t. 

What to do instead

The business case is fundamentally a sloppy approach presenting itself as a ‘quick win’. 

Meaningful work, however, rarely happens in this way. Instead, DEI leaders need to dig in and lean into one-on-one conversations with senior leaders to locate those who are prepared to roll their sleeves up and do this work properly. Building with just a few senior leaders who are committed, eager to learn and ready to act, is far more powerful for transformation than countless superficially engaged people. 

“Once you have located your courageous early adopters,” McCloskey notes, “focus your attention on re-designing internal structures, such as policies and processes, to try and make inequitable harm as unlikely as possible.” This approach doesn’t require mass ‘buy in,’ because it instead establishes the guardrails for what is encouraged and permissible from staff. This is how we can scale equity and inclusion for marginalized folks. 

To do this work with integrity though, DEI leaders must simply insist that this work matters because these people and communities matter. And that marginalized employees, current and future, deserve a workplace and world that has, as a starting point, the belief that communities that experience oppression are worthy of legitimacy, dignity and safety. 

When inclusion is granting people their humanity, we cannot do it in dehumanizing ways.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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