WHU Diversity Week 2021

Effectively managing diversity

How should companies manage diversity in order to achieve real impact? And what does it take to become a thought leader in diversity management? These were two central questions at the WHU Diversity Week 2021, which took place in a hybrid format at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management from October 25th to 29th. For the past six years, the student-run network Diversity at WHU has organized annual diversity conferences to create a platform for mutual exchange between students, scholars, and diversity experts and promote diversity, whether cultural, gender-specific, or otherwise. This year, almost 200 people accepted the invitation to participate in and observe a total of 13 keynote speeches, workshops, and academic talks.

A growing number of companies are coming to realize the value of diversity and, thus, want to attract a diverse workforce. And yet diverse talent often feels excluded in the workplace, and many are skeptical of the real intentions behind corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts. As Dominik Weh, Partner at strategy consultancy Oliver Wyman, noted at the WHU Diversity Week 2020, this discrepancy is partially due to the interplay between diversity and inclusion. Only when there is an inclusive, discrimination-free work environment can diverse talents develop their full potential. During his keynote speech “Inclusion and Belonging in a Professional Environment” at this year's conference, Weh added that diversity management should never be seen solely as the responsibility of the Human Resources (HR) department. But how can companies create an inclusive work environment and where does diversity management need to be centered?

Leadership Commitment and Visibility at all Levels

Dominik Weh is convinced that visibility at all levels is one of the most important levers for creating an inclusive work environment. The board level in particular must set an example and take action. Weh received support for his argument from Lucas Kohlmann, who is responsible for the DE&I division at the German consumer goods manufacturer Henkel. The initial impulse for a diverse and inclusive environment must always come from the CEO, Kohlmann argued. In addition, there must be pressure from new employees who want to make a difference. Stéphane Bonutto, who has made genderless clothing his personal brand and currently serves as CFO at Oerlikon Balzers, goes one step further: While he believes that it is important for executives to be committed to diversity, they must also set an example for diversity themselves. The board must show that “DE&I is not only welcomed but expected.” He concluded by stating that every person is unique and should not be ashamed to express their personal diversity.

Appreciative Inquiry as a new Type of Diversity Training

Diversity training is another way to advance DE&I in the workplace. A number of companies offer unconscious bias training to show employees their own implicit attitudes towards minorities. However, Dr. Pisitta Vongswasdi, Assistant Professor for Diversity at WHU, explained that unconscious bias training can also have detrimental effects on participants as people often react defensively when confronted with information suggesting that they maintain implicit biases. To prevent such adverse effects, Vongswasdi presented the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) method in her workshop as an alternative to unconscious bias training. For this purpose, participants were asked to recall situations in which they have had a particularly positive experience in a diverse team constellation. As the workshop illustrated, the change of perspective towards the positive aspects of diversity prevents defensive reactions and is thus a further approach to sensitizing employees to DE&I.

 “It ultimately depends on the outcome”

There are a variety of other approaches that can lead to an inclusive work environment and ultimately make companies thought leaders in diversity management. Gender-inclusive language and diversity quotas were discussed at length in this regard. However, Karen Schallert, founder of the coaching and mentoring company HandicapUnlimited, noted on the first day of the WHU Diversity Week that discussing diversity is easy. Achieving real change and actively managing diversity, on the other hand, is much more difficult. Dominik Weh concurred, commenting, “As much as I hate quotas, they probably have the greatest impact because they force you to change.” According to Weh, it is thus not so much a question of how a diverse and inclusive environment is achieved, but that it is achieved at all.