Minority Interests

The Access & Legitimacy Business Case For Diversity

November 30, 2014 No Comments

In the second of a four part series we explore an approach to diversity that is regularly used to justify a business case for diversity: the Access & Legitimacy approach. I first read about this in an influential academic paper by Professor Robin Ely and Professor David Thomas from Harvard Business School.

Access & Legitimacy

Organisations that employ an access and legitimacy approach to diversity recognise that the market place is culturally diverse. As a result, an organisation will attempt to improve the diversity of it’s workforce in order to be recognised as a legitimate participant in the market and therefore gain access to market opportunities.

The business case rests on the premise that a failure to reflect the cultural diversity of the market can directly influence the financial opportunities available to the organisation. Often when organisations talk about a business case for diversity this is what they mean.

Access, Legitimacy or Both?

This is a particularly challenging issue for companies that intend to serve global markets. This could be observed when several tech companies including Twitter, Facebook and Google chose to publish their diversity data.

These organisations have clear goals that require them to connect with as many human beings as possible. However their reports revealed that their workforces lacked ethnic or gender diversity. Given that close to half of the world population is female and that so called minority ethnic groups in the West make up the majority of the emerging markets around the world this could undermine their ability to access or be accepted as legitimate in these markets.

Twitter has a goal to reach every person on the planet. The statement that accompanied their first diversity report reflected an access and legitimacy perspective because they acknowledged that their goal was “more attainable with a team that understands and represents different cultures and backgrounds”.

Facebook was similar, they said they need a team that understands and reflects many different communities, backgrounds and cultures.

The implication of these statements is that having teams that understand different cultures will help them access these cultures; teams that reflect or represent these cultures provide legitimacy.

Both of these companies said they were not happy with the under representation of minority ethnic groups and I think that to some extent this served to legitimatise them because sharing this information acted like a declaration of intent. However if Twitter, Facebook and organisations like them fail to reflect the consumers they seek to serve then their legitimacy will continue to be undermined even if they access these markets.

Local Problem

Access and legitimacy isn’t just a problem for aspiring global tech companies, it’s also increasingly important for professional services firms. In their study of professional service firms in the UK, Professor Fiona Anderson Gough and colleagues discuss the importance of the client and client relationships. The wants and needs of a client are a huge driver of behaviour in professional service firms.

This is important because as clients change so must the professional service firms that cater to their needs. Increasingly the clients of professional service firms will have established programmes to promote diversity and inclusion. In order to satisfy the needs of the client and maintain their legitimacy professional service firms may need to mirror the diversity efforts of the clients.

Coca Cola believes that their suppliers should represent their diverse consumer base. An organisation that wanted to access Coca Cola as a client would have to promote diversity within their organisation.

This sounds like good news but it could also lead to tokenism, for example getting a woman, disabled person or minority ethnic individual to have a client-facing role without having any real change in the organisation. Coca Cola seem to address this problem by establishing a diversity mentoring programme to support their suppliers.

Does your organisation have a business case for diversity?

Is this something important to your company or does it feel like you’re just ticking boxes?

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts

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