By David Casey

Vice President and Diversity Officer
CVS Caremark

By now, every seasoned diversity practitioner appreciates the importance of making the case for diversity in this way—using the language of business, tying proposed investments to results, and following up with quantitative analyses of how the needle moved and why that mattered to the bottom line.

It is critical that we as diversity practitioners and champions continue to build on our successes in establishing diversity as a true business imperative. But in and of itself, this argument is not enough; not anymore. As we continue appealing to “the head” with the strong business case for diversity, the time has come to also renew our focus on “the heart” of the matter—the personal and emotional underpinnings of the diversity conversation.

Why now? Because the balance sheet no longer tells the whole story for any company. Organizations today increasingly are judged as much for their contributions to society as they are their returns to shareholders. The pursuit of profit without regard for a company’s broader role in society today is a losing strategy in the marketplace, where stakeholders, ranging from customers to employees, increasingly say they prefer companies that share their values.

We should also understand that the people in our companies are thinking about the moral and emotional aspects of diversity, whether or not their diversity teams acknowledge them. If we don’t openly and proactively acknowledge this and create opportunities to explore the emotional experience of difference in our workplaces, then we are not having a very complete conversation about diversity at all.

And so we find ourselves as diversity practitioners in a very interesting place, one that our predecessors may not have anticipated, coming out of the Civil Rights movement. In those early years of our field, diversity practitioners learned that the moral argument by itself was not enough to move business leaders to action. Today, having thoroughly established the business case for diversity, and with the C-suite focusing both on value and values, we can start framing our message this way: Diversity isn’t just good for business. It’s the right thing to do, and here’s why.

I have had some of these discussions over the course of my career. I remember them as “courageous conversations,” because they required me to leave my comfort zone—my spreadsheets, my PowerPoint decks, my org charts—and to ask senior executives also to leave their comfort zones so we could have frank and thorough conversations about managing diversity and its related tensions and complexities.

Let’s face it—if we, the people responsible for driving the conversation about diversity in our organizations, don’t make the connection between the numbers and the people they represent, who will? It takes courage to talk openly and constructively in a business setting about personal topics like religion, ethnicity, and gender identity. And it’s up to diversity profession¬als to foster these conversations by modeling this courage and making it easier for others to follow suit.

How to Have Courageous Conversations

  • First, establish a foundation of trust.
    • Don’t preach or scold,
    • Admit that none of us gets it right all of the time,
    • Provide personal examples from your own life when you fell victim to cultural assumptions or stereotypes and “got it wrong.”
  • Explain that the goal isn’t the suppressioin of assumptions and stereotypes, but rather a process for acknowledging them and dealing with them.
    • Give people the right tools to feel more comfortable in discussing these issues openly.
  • Explain the critical unimportance of emotional intelligence for managers and employees in diverse environments
    • People are not robots—we cannot turn off our emotions,
    • It is possible to talk about emotions in the context of business,
    • There is no either/or choice to be made between rational and emotions-based conversations about diversity—both types of thinking are necessary for diversity work to be truly sustainable and strategic.

Business cycles evolve and the practice and discipline of diversity management is no different. We have gone from making it all about the “heart” to doing our level best to leave the emotions out of it and “get to the business.” There is no better time than now to not only engage the spreadsheet, but to also get to the heart of the matter.