Companies that claim to care about being socially responsible are often greeted with a cynical eye. Sure, they talk the talk, but do they actually walk the walk?
While we understand the deep skepticism that many people have, our latest research suggests that at least when it comes to diversity and inclusion, there is a meaningful connection between how companies talk and whether or not they walk.
To explore the relationship between what corporations say and the actions they take, we examined statements of corporate purpose and values published on the websites of 640 large, publicly traded companies. Of those, 101 list diversity and/or inclusion as one of their handful of core values.
For instance, software provider F5 Networks says that it is “committed to a diverse and inclusive” company, adding: “We know the magic ingredient is our differences, when embraced with humility and respect. And because we know this, we believe that top talent is found in a diversity of individual backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.”
To test whether such assertions amount to anything, we then compared gender diversity in the top ranks of the 101 companies with the other 539. And we discovered that there is, in fact, a real difference between the two cohorts.
Among the 101 companies that say they value diversity and inclusion, women account for 21% of C-suite executives and members of senior management, according to financial-information provider Refinitiv Eikon. At the other companies, it’s only 16%.
In addition, 26% of board members at the 101 companies are women, versus 23% at the other 539—not as big a gap, but still statistically significant.
Unfortunately, we were forced to limit our analysis to gender diversity because firm-level information on racial and ethnic diversity is not widely available. But we surmise that the findings there would be similar.
When a company articulates a particular set of values on its website, it stands to be held accountable by employees, investors and customers—especially in an age of constant scrutiny on social media.
Indeed, it is telling that a mere 16% of the companies we looked at have incorporated diversity and inclusion as one of their core values on their website. This indicates that such proclamations are not made lightly.
Verbalizing values appears to be an essential part of the way that companies process and internalize change. There is a seriousness of purpose to all of this—and that, in turn, can drive better performance.
Notably, our research shows that the 101 companies score slightly higher than do their 539 peers on the Drucker Institute’s assessment of corporate effectiveness. They also score slightly higher on each of the individual categories that the institute measures: customer satisfaction, employee engagement and development, innovation, social responsibility, and financial strength.
On a series of other financial indicators, the 101 companies also have markedly better results than do the 539, outpacing them on net income; gross profit; earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization; and other key metrics.
In the months ahead, we expect more companies to issue values statements pledging a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our own scouring of corporate websites was completed before the killing by police of George Floyd in May, and many companies have spoken out about the need for racial justice since then.
That’s encouraging. Based on our findings, we would expect over time that the act of stating such values will lead to more companies living them.
In the end, though, it’s important to stress that saying something isn’t the same as doing it, and that the numbers across corporate America remain woefully small. That women make up 21% of the senior management ranks at the 101 companies we’ve highlighted means that 79% of those positions are occupied by men.
It’s good for companies to be talking. But in terms of walking, they all need to pick up the pace—by a lot—as there is a long, long way to go.
Signe Spencer is a client research partner at the Korn Ferry Institute. Evelyn Orr is the institute’s senior vice president and chief operating officer. Michael Hyter is Korn Ferry’s chief diversity officer.
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