The Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion

The business case for diversity and inclusion was top of mind at  SIFMA’s 2016 Annual Meeting The Capital Markets Conference. Panelists touched on the rapidly changing demographic landscape and the need for companies to adapt in kind.

Congresswoman Terri Sewell addressed the audience, saying, “The success of our nation’s financial sector hinges on its most important asset - its people.”

Diversity isn’t just good for individuals, it’s good business. “If you keep hiring the same people, you’re going to get the same views. You won’t see innovation, you won’t see change,” said Chris Lewis, General Counsel at Edward Jones.

The panelists agreed that the business case for diversity isn’t a difficult one to make. Firms are aware of the tangible benefits of inclusion, said Suni Harford, managing director at Citigroup: “Enhanced business begets more business, and that’s good for the economy. Firms recognize that our consumers and clients and vendors are diverse and when we help those people, it comes back to us tenfold. You can make the business case very easily.”

Panelists noted that when diversity and inclusion initiatives proliferate, the entire supply chain responds positively. “It’s not just about your immediate workforce, it’s about who you hire to supply your product,” said Congresswoman Sewell. “America’s exceptionalism hinges on the diversity and that tapestry of difference.”

The panelists agreed that D&I initiatives need to be prioritized at the executive level. “The message has to be delivered from the top, and it has to cascade down to the troops,” said Egbert L.J. Perry, Chairman of Fannie Mae and Chairman and CEO of The Integral Group.

Lewis noted that today, senior leaders at large companies are highly focused on these initiatives. “Our CEO is extremely engaged in D&I, not because it’s a nice thing to do, but because it’s a business imperative. That prioritization did not exist in this industry ten to fifteen years ago.”

Panelists highlighted the fact that there is still room to improve on D&I. “You won’t achieve pipeline diversity unless you are intentional about it,” said Lewis. “While D&I is becoming the norm for large companies, there are medium and small companies too, where we may not see progress at the same pace.”

However, the discussion was generally positive about the trajectory of diversity in business. “We are getting to the place where you can have a conversation about hiring and board appointments, without discussing quotas and requirements,” said Lewis. “We are not there yet. It is a conversation we need to continue.”

The panel spoke in favor of regulatory benchmarks with respect to D&I, though no consensus was reached on how far regulations should go. The panelists acknowledged complications involved with quotas and legal mandates. They pointed instead to incentivizing D&I policies, and rewarding those companies that prioritize them.

“There’s a role that government has to play. The government workforce is a testament to the importance of reflecting the larger population,” said Sewell. “Legislation and policy should incentivize the world you’d like to see.”

Cheryl Crispen is Executive Vice President, Communications & Marketing, SIFMA