What Not to Say to Your CEO About Diversity

Want your CEO to become your diversity champion? Here are the pitfalls you need to avoid.

More than 50 percent of the Benchmarking debriefs we do each year are with CEOs and executive teams of the 80 companies that are our clients. We also have published 12 one-on-one interviews with CEOs in DiversityInc this year and have had 15 CEOs speak at our events. Having observed what gets CEOs fired up about diversity—and how they hold their executives accountable for sustainable results—we've put together a primer for you on what NOT to say to your CEO about diversity and inclusion.


Don't: Neglect your homework.

Do: Understand your CEO as a human being first. What is his/her story? Understanding family background, education and values is core to developing a diversity-and-inclusion message that will click. Did an incident, experience or relationship provoke an epiphany? It's our experience that behind every diversity-passionate CEO is a story.

Don't: Tell your CEO to emphasize "it's the right thing to do." Of course, inclusion is the right thing to do—and we've seen a small number of CEOs advance D&I primarily because they feel it's the right thing to do. But most CEOs already have come to an understanding that it's the right thing to do for their businesses. In this light, your presentation should have the same format (including font and PowerPoint template) and quality of content as your CFO's presentations. Avoid diversity parlor tricks like jelly beans or animal analogies (unless your CFO uses them, in which case it's probably time to look for another job).

Do: Make sure your CEO is given relevant information about how diversity helps your company reach its business goals, and that he or she is encouraged to communicate support frequently and as part of regular business messages. Consider that 94 percent of DiversityInc Top 50 CEOs have a personal quote on diversity on the homepage of their company websites and also communicate regularly on their intranets about the business benefits of diversity. And if you look at those quotes, especially of CEOs whose companies are in the top 10, you'll see that they are business-focused, not full of platitudes.

Don't: Tell your CEO that diversity management is about having fewer white men at the top. Since odds are that your CEO and his direct reports are primarily white men, you won't be sending a message of inclusion at all.

Do: Help the CEO and the senior executives understand through data and facts that by improving the diversity of human-capital demographics, they will expand the business by improving innovation, engagement and outreach to increasingly multicultural clients and suppliers. Emphasize the "inclusion" part of D&I, which means making the business case to white men for their involvement and getting their buy-in from the beginning. And be sure to understand that this group of similarly dressed white men is also very diverse in its own regard.

Don't: De-emphasize human-capital metrics.

Do: We've seen almost 100 percent correlation between a chief diversity officer's de-emphasizing metrics and a reduction of D&I department staff and budget. At a well-run company, any business project worth doing is tracked very closely to results. Diversity management is no different, and it's your job to make that connection. Link recruiting and talent-development goals to quality and performance. (Finding the best and brightest from every group is harder than "going with the majority flow," but it doesn't set up your company for a more-diverse future—and doesn't leave a good legacy for the future leadership of the company.) Understanding the trajectory of best practices and outcomes at other companies is key to successful diversity-management initiatives.

Don't: Think that the objections of senior-management naysayers are insurmountable.

Do: A large-company CEO recently told one of us that he had two naysayers regarding same-gender partner benefits. Both were senior and well regarded. Both "retired" earlier than they had anticipated. As Dr. Martin Luther King said: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Stick to your facts and your principals. We're on the winning side of history. Keep your chin up, and give us a call if you would like some support.

--Luke Visconti and Barbara Frankel

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Luke Visconti is the founder and CEO of DiversityInc. Although the title of his column is meant to be humorous, the issues he addresses and the answers he gives to questions are serious — and based on his 17 years of experience publishing DiversityInc. Click here to send your own question to Luke.

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