Making DEI Work – Bain & Company’s Julie Coffman and Sara Minelli

Julie Coffman, chief diversity officer and Sara Minelli, associate partner at Bain & Company Middle East provide a view of diversity for companies in the Middle East in collaboration with Grads of Life

Bain & Company Julie Coffman

With many countries across the Middle East moving towards advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), business leaders as well have been thinking about the most effective way to build a DEI strategy.

Companies, globally and in the region, have so far focused their attention ‘inside their organisations’—on things like hiring policies, strategies for retaining and advancing employees from underrepresented groups, and the cultural factors that promote or inhibit greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Yet, in our experience working with some of the global and local largest and most successful businesses to advance their DEI goals, leaders who look beyond their own “four walls”—focusing as much on external stakeholders as on their own workforces—are poised to create more significant impact with their DEI strategies than are their peers.

At Bain & Company and Grads of Life, we’ve developed a framework of five core areas of business operations that effective DEI strategies span. Four of these areas of operation are internal, while the fifth—external engagement—looks outside a company’s walls to embed DEI in things such as supply chains, customer and product strategy, community engagement, and communication with the general public.

There are many ways businesses can embrace this important component of DEI leadership. In a report published in 2021, for example, we explored how supplier diversity programs can create powerful ripple effects within communities historically excluded from the economic mainstream. Here we look into three additional actions companies can take to build strong DEI external engagement strategies and advance equity beyond their four walls.

Report externally on DEI efforts, goals, and outcomes

By reporting consistently and transparently on DEI goals, efforts to meet those goals, and progress toward target outcomes—businesses can signal a clear commitment not only to the principles of DEI but to the hard, ongoing work that goes into living out those principles.

Such external reporting signals commitment in more ways than one. It demonstrates that a company has already invested in data collection and tracking systems, affirming that DEI is a strategic priority for the business. Public disclosure of DEI data also increases business accountability and can lead to more meaningful action: When leaders know information will be public, they are more likely to behave in ways aligned with their stated principles and goals, according to a study published in the Annual Review of Economics.

As a commitment to DEI becomes more and more important to the next generation of talent, a growing number of job seekers are also demanding transparency. The opportunity for greater transparency remains significant, and we’ve seen some strong early actors in this space.

Build inclusive and equitable customer experiences

Customers are obviously a critically important group of external stakeholders for any company. And businesses have a responsibility to carefully consider how their own product and service offerings—and the way they deliver these to customers—may be perpetuating inequitable status quos.

We’ve found that a helpful starting point for companies to assess how equitably they are serving customers can be to examine customer data. For example, discrepancies between a company’s customer mix relative to the local population could point to certain demographic groups being excluded due to lack of physical or digital access, product affordability, exclusive messaging, or other barriers. Furthermore, differences in customer satisfaction scores can indicate service level discrepancies for different demographic groups. Leading companies also measure how specific customer equity outcomes generated by their products and services (e.g., time to recovery for hospitals, or loan approval rates for banks) may differ by key diversity vectors such as gender and race.

Such data can be a powerful indicator of where a company’s products or services may contain inherent biases that perpetuate inequities, even and especially if these biases are unintentional. Companies can then intervene at several points to build greater equity into the customer experience life cycle. Incorporating diverse customer and employee voices in product design is one lever companies can pull.

Take a clear stance and advocate on social justice issues

Commenting on or reacting to social justice issues can be delicate and challenging for companies with many stakeholders to answer to and interests to balance—put plainly, speaking out means risking alienating employees, customers, or business partners. But when done authentically and in line with company values, taking a clear position on social justice issues can go a long way toward building trust and loyalty among employees and customers alike. Perceptions of a company’s stance on social issues are increasingly driving consumer behavior. A clear position on social issues can, in fact, compel unprecedented levels of customer loyalty. To summarise, how a company acts and is viewed externally when it comes to DEI, has a huge impact on its relationship with both internal and external stakeholders. Besides reinforcing internally focused DEI efforts by building trust and loyalty among their workforces (and attracting future talent), robust DEI programs can contribute towards increased customer loyalty by responding to individuals who are more likely to support a company that makes a public commitment to DEI initiatives.