Part 4: Getting Buy-In for Your Diversity and Inclusion Program

*Editor’s note: Download our full Diversity and Inclusion Handbook for more than 70 pages of tangible strategies to help you cultivate diversity and inclusion on your team.

We believe passionately that diverse and inclusive companies make for more innovative, engaged, and happy teams, and we speak forward-thinking talent leaders all the time who feel the same. We’re writing this series on how to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace because people are ready for the next level of discourse around D&I: one aimed at practical and applicable solutions. In Part 3, you’ll find tactical advice, beneficial resources, and examples of what companies are doing today to make impactful and long-lasting progress in D&I. Read the series introduction to see what we cover throughout the series. 

Regardless of the depth of your passion, your impact on diversity and inclusion in the workplace will be limited without buy-in from the broader team. But rallying people around diversity and inclusion isn’t like making the case for new software or different lunch options. Diversity in the workplace is a sensitive subject that people have strong opinions about, and the actions that you take can deeply affect people’s lives.

Know going in that this subject is complicated and  while well intentioned not everyone is as informed as you are on the subject; they might not have all the context that you do. Even with the best of intentions, you’ll face a wide range of responses and reactions. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but ultimately, you should be ready to not meet 100 percent consensus on everything.

When you end up in territory where you’re misunderstood or you misunderstand others, a good starting point is to simply ask questions and listen so that you can understand. Listening will outperform simply telling or demanding every time. It’s listening that is going to help you get the buy-in that you need to progress the initiatives that you’re passionate about. It’s important that your efforts represent what your team wants to see, by setting goals you’re able to get a pulse on what’s important to your team, now we’re talking about steps to help get the buy-in that you need.

Here are specific ways to get buy-in from key stakeholders.

Buy in from employees

Respect the right to choose

Underrepresented minorities can be some of your biggest champions and drivers of diversity and inclusion efforts, but it’s a common mistake to assume that they all want to spend their time working on diversity-related issues. Don’t assume that the female software engineer wants to spend her time recruiting other women in engineering, or that a visually impaired colleague wants to spend his time educating his peers on approaches to improve workplace accessibility.

They’re at the organization to work, and there’s a very real risk of jeopardizing their performance by burdening them with “extracurricular” responsibilities that they didn’t invite. It’s also common that they’ve had experiences in prior jobs when the same assumptions were made, leading them to be sensitized. It’s best to make it very clear that minorities can choose to be completely unattached to diversity initiatives and that’s completely ok. Give them the choice to opt-in and be explicit about the expectations that you have for their participation, you want to make sure they know exactly what they are signing up for.

It’s also a mistake to assume that your underrepresented minorities are the only ones that want to work with you at it. In the early days at Lever, our diversity and inclusion taskforce was our entire company. Everyone was bought in, everyone saw the value and wanted to work to make our workplace one we were proud of. If you can, get as many people involved as possible. In the best case scenario, it becomes a company wide effort and in the worst case scenario, it’s a concentrated blend of folks working on it with you. Which is hardly the worst case, if you ask me.

Ask to listen

When you first reach out to your employees, start with a simple request: to have a conversation. Immediately leading with a meeting and agenda on diversity goals can make it seem like you see their participation as a means to an end, or that you’re applying pressure on them to join the cause.

Instead, request the opportunity to learn and validate their employee experience, and solicit feedback you can use for future programs. Ask them questions like, “Are you disappointed with…?” “Do you see any opportunities for…?”

If they’re willing, collect quotes, experiences, and stories, and ask if you have their permission to share these (perhaps anonymously). These stories will help you build momentum with the company at large, especially the executive team, and can turn into powerful anecdotes to share with external listeners.

Offer transparency and accountability

To get the buy-in from underrepresented groups, you’ll want to lead with transparency of intentions and accountability of conduct. Offer them the option of signing up for a mailing list where you’ll post quarterly updates on the programs and progress to date. Or better yet, make these announcements company-wide and clue everyone in to where you are against your goals. By including everyone in your progress, you’re making a statement that it’s important for all employees to be informed and updated (not just those who are underrepresented minorities).

Regardless of your methods for establishing transparency and accountability, take the extra step to prove that you’re aiming to do this for the long run, out in the open.  

Empower with recognition and support

Among the conversations you initiate, you’ll find a few employees passionate to step forward and continue to contribute. It’s no surprise that these passionate individuals can be the most impactful.

They’ll ask for ways to help, and some ideas are:

  • Help recruit at universities
  • Blog about their experiences at your company
  • Share out some of your company’s progress on social media
  • Represent the company at conferences in their area of interest
  • Lead an employee resource group (ERG)

But tread lightly – many underrepresented minority employees will be shy to step up and speak on initiatives or issues because of a fear of being singled out. An Academy of Management Journal study called “Does diversity-valuing behavior result in diminished performance ratings for nonwhite and female leaders?” showed that women and non-white executives can actually get penalized for promoting diversity. Those who were reported as frequently engaging in diversity-valuing behaviors (like hiring someone else who did not look like them) were rated much worse by their bosses. In order to truly support and empower these individuals, diversity has to be backed up from the very top.

Buy in from execs

Top-down support for driving diversity and inclusion efforts is invaluable – no question about it.  Lever’s CEO, Sarah, was the driving force behind the existence of my role. I can attest to how powerful a thing it can be to have our CEO, our co-founders, and our executive team all united behind Lever’s goals in workplace diversity. However, I know my situation may not be the norm, and it’s not always easy to get the ear of the executive team, much less their buy-in.

Leverage research

Many of you already know that to make a strong argument, you’ll want to leverage the research and data out there which shows:

That diversity is good for the bottom line:

    1. Gender-diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to outperform (have financial returns above their respective national industry medians) non-gender diverse companies, and ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to outperform. Mckinsey
    2. “Companies with at least one female board member had a return on equity of 14.1 percent over the past nine years, greater than the 11.2 percent for those without any women. The stock valuations are also higher for gender diverse boards versus all-male ones.” 
  1. “Employees of firms with 2-D diversity [inherent traits and acquired experience] are 45% likelier to report a growth in market share over the previous year and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market.” HBR
  2. Diverse and inclusive workforces demonstrate 1.12x more discretionary effort, 1.19x greater intent to stay, 1.57x more collaboration among teams, and 1.42x greater team commitment.

And that bias is real:

  1. 76 percent more readily associate “males” with “career” and “females” with “family.”
  2. 70 percent have an implicit preference for white people over black people.
  3. A study of identical resumes – one with a man’s name and one with a woman’s name – found that 79 percent of applicants with a man’s names vs. 49 percent of those with a woman’s name where ‘worthy of hire.’
  4. Resumes with white-sounding names received more calls for interviews than identical resumes with black-sounding names.
  5. When men and women work together on tasks, women are given less credit for a successful outcome, viewed as having made small contributions to it, and blamed more for failure.
  6. Without diverse leadership, women are 20% less likely than straight white men to win endorsement for their ideas; people of color are 24% less likely; and LGBTs are 21% less likely. HBR

The stats in points one through five come from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Head of People Lori Goler’s presentation at the 2016 Makers Conference.

Use stories, and diversity and inclusion quotes too

Stories are incredibly powerful at getting people motivated to act. If you meet with your current employees, come equipped with stories of how those employees have struggled and fought the tide of a non-inclusive workplace; select and share choice quotes that help bring their struggles to life. Knowing that these stories – these experiences – came from people they know can inspire a leader to action.

Know what you’re asking for

After making a compelling argument for why diversity and inclusion matters, you should make sure you know exactly what you’re asking for. Don’t let your effort be a missed opportunity for resources and budget!

Consider these ways in which your executive team can support your diversity & inclusion efforts:

  • Giving protection, support, and assurances from retaliation
  • Participating visibly
  • Being receptive to input
  • Creating a budget (this one isn’t easy but it’s good to know that you’re thinking about it)

Go as high as you can. If you’re struggling to reach the C-suite, find the VP with the most passion, if you can’t find a VP, talk to a Director or a people manager. Get leadership on your side, rooting for you and invested in the work that you’re doing on diversity and inclusion. Track your progress, measure your results, and use your proof points to ladder up.

Many of you reading this are on the HR and recruiting team; but for those who aren’t, HR can be your greatest ally in making concrete gains in building a culture of inclusion. Put another way, a diversity and inclusion program that doesn’t have collaboration from HR can feel like a lost cause. HR should be partnering with you every step of the way. If you are in HR, you have a huge role to play! You have the ability to either amplify or dampen diversity and inclusion efforts at your company. More than anything, you’re there to be a checks and balances to ensure that we’re on the right path. For most companies, HR can act as the sanctuary and this is no exception. Being aligned on these goals and efforts is key, so if you aren’t being invited into the conversation ask to be included! You can be the ultimate ally to the cause.

Understand where they’re coming from

Diversifying the workforce has been an initiative in HR for decades, but under a different guise, and with subsequently different goals. Since it’s creation in 1964, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC) has worked alongside the Department of Labor (DOL) to ensure that all Americans have necessary protection and rights in matters of obtaining and retaining employment. This includes ensuring that HR departments are able to track, identify, and prevent bias against underrepresented groups. This led HR departments at organizations to focus on legal liability as the focal point of diversity initiatives. Sounds burdensome, right? Though, there are many ways to re-think the way you bring the initiatives mandated by the EEOC and how they come to fruition within your HR organizations. For example:

  • Build policies meant to focus on retaining your underrepresented talent. Report on attrition and employment rates as it relates to underrepresented groups
  • Be explicit with the expectations for each role and have a clear and universal path to promotion
  • When employees exit your company, ask them to weigh in on the company’s diversity initiatives and efforts

Project Include puts it elegantly, “Base your HR strategy on inclusion, not protection from legal liability”

Buy in from your broader company

People are going to be all over the map when it comes to personal opinions about diversity and inclusion topics and levels of engagement, so build programs to appeal to people at varying degrees of familiarity and interest, and make it clear that you want everyone (not just minorities) to have a voice in the conversation. At Lever, we have people who are extremely passionate about diversity and inclusion but weren’t sure where their place in the cause is. It can be easy to feel intimidated if you feel like there isn’t a place for you in diversity efforts.  Make room for all experiences, thats inclusion at its best. It’s important that the intent and purpose of these initiatives can resonate throughout your company.

If you can, find ways to tie diversity and inclusion back to the broader picture and company goals. Diversity and inclusion doesn’t just affect your employees, it affects your customers (if you have them), your prospects and the community around you. Diversity and inclusion should be a thread that touches almost everything in your organization. Similar to cost, diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be a separate initiative — it should be baked into every decision.

  • Try to find ways to help everyone relate to why this is important for your company. Using stories and anecdotes can help everyone feel that this cause affects them in some way
  • When HR is evaluating  benefits consider whether your benefits package is inclusive
  • When offsites are being planned consider whether or not the offsites are inclusive of all employees
  • Invite more employees in by building out opportunities for more people to work on diversity in the workplace. Create a taskforce to help.  Diversity can’t be just the job of one person, take some of your initiatives and invite others to work on them
  • Air things out. Talk about what hasn’t been going right, talk about where you want to see improvement. Be transparent and vulnerable


Approach the buy-in process without any assumptions. Ask questions, listen, and seek to understand everyone’s point of view before diving in with your own agenda. This will help you effectively win support from all corners of your org. Some people will be more committed than others, and you likely won’t win the buy in of every individual, but with a thoughtful and well-researched approach, you can be a powerful force for change at your company.

For more, read our next post on how to reduce bias in your recruiting process, and download our Diversity & Inclusion Handbook for hundreds of impactful tactics like the ones above.