Q&A: Michael Bach makes the business case for diversity and inclusion

Michael Bach wrote the book on diversity and inclusion (D&I). But he also walks the talk as CEO of the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, which he founded in 2012. Before that, he was national director of diversity, equity and inclusion for KPMG in Canada. We spoke to Bach about his new book, Birds of All Feathers: Doing Diversity and Inclusion Right, which helps entrepreneurs, managers and senior leaders make better D&I decisions...

Credit: Michael Bach

To build a workplace that welcomes everyone, organizations should make creativity and innovation the end goal, the D&I expert says

Michael Bach wrote the book on diversity and inclusion (D&I). But he also walks the talk as CEO of the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, which he founded in 2012. Before that, he was national director of diversity, equity and inclusion for KPMG in Canada.

We spoke to Bach about his new book, Birds of All Feathers: Doing Diversity and Inclusion Right, which helps entrepreneurs, managers and senior leaders make better D&I decisions.

For the complete interview, check out the BCBusiness Podcast.

The book’s title is Birds of All Feathers. What were you trying to get across with that name?

It’s really just a metaphor for how I like to perceive or approach diversity and inclusion work, where it’s about everyone—and that includes straight, white, able-bodied men—to make sure that they feel like they’re part of the conversation. 

What does diversity and inclusion actually mean?

Simply put, I would say diversity is about all the things that make us unique. And the subtext to that is yes, it includes your gender and your ethnicity, but it also includes things like your learning style and where you grew up and where you live in the country and the job you have.

Inclusion is about creating space where all of those things can exist and thrive—in this case, workplaces where people can come to work and bring their whole self, and not feel like they have to leave a piece of themselves at home. And whether that piece is visible or invisible, they don’t get to hang up their ethnicity or their religion or their ability at the door when they walk in the office.

You say that you can’t have one without the other as an organization.

Theoretically you can have diversity without inclusion, and you can have inclusion without diversity. Having inclusion without diversity means you have a good culture, but it means that you’re lacking the diversity of perspective that comes with diversity of personal identity.

You can have diversity without having inclusion, but the truth of the matter is, it won’t last long. People will underperform, they will be disengaged, and they will not last in the organization, because they’re hearing racist comments in the hallway, they’re not being invited to events because of whatever they are. So the diversity won’t stay.

D&I can get heavy, so you’ve tried to inject some humour into the discussion.

As I say in the book, I subscribe to the belief that we learn better while laughing. And this can be a really heavy topic, and some people who do this work can be really heavy-handed about it and approach from very much the perspective of guilt and blame and “You’re bad” and “Here’s what you need to do.”

I look at it and say we’re all human, we all have flaws. And knowing that—knowing that no one is perfect—let’s see what we can do in order to tackle this contentious subject with a little levity. And frankly, it’s an effective means. As we have seen with our clients and with the work that I’ve done over the past 15 years, it has an impact.

You make it clear that given your own privilege as a white male, you aren’t the guy to talk about marginalization.

No. Those things are very real and important and need to be discussed, but I am still in the body of a white cisgender man. And without some very expensive, yet-to-be-discovered surgery, that isn’t going to change.

I think it’s really important for people to speak about where their expertise lies. Like, I wouldn’t do anti-racism training. It would be ridiculous for me to be doing anti-racism training. But I have some great people I work with who do anti-racism training. It’s about making sure that you’ve got the best person for the job.

You’ve worked in the diversity and inclusion field in workplaces all over the world for two decades. You argue that for employers, the so-called social justice approach to diversity and inclusion has never worked—and never will. The basic idea: a straight, white, able-bodied man must lose so a member of an underrepresented group can win. Why doesn’t that model work?

Because it requires that straight, white, able-bodied man to have zero self-interest and to willingly give up his power. And that’s not terribly incentivizing, to say to somebody, “You just have to give up everything for the rest of us to succeed.” Why would I do that?

We’ve seen that in lots of examples where people, particularly white men, are feeling threatened by the demographic shifts that we’re seeing on this continent. It’s amplified south of the border, but we have examples of it here in Canada. And it’s that self-interest that they simply won’t give up.

Whereas if they understand that this conversation is about the betterment of our country, the betterment of our organizations and, frankly, the better of them as individuals, because through diversity, their organizations will be more successful, then they start to see it from their perspective and go, OK, I can get on board with that; I can see what’s in it for me.

Social justice is one of two diversity and inclusion models. The other is the creativity and innovation model. Why does that approach work better? You compare it to using Google Maps on your phone versus a printed map.

The social justice model, the goal is diversity. The goal is the representation of people from marginalized groups in positions of power. And that’s great; representation is really important.

The goal of the creativity and innovation model is to address the challenges that we face on a daily basis as it relates to things like sustainability and growth for employers. The means to achieve that is diversity and inclusion, and that’s essentially the difference between the two models. The goal in the creativity and innovation model isn’t about the diversity and inclusion; it’s about the innovation and the creativity. It’s about coming up with solutions to problems.

Let’s use Alberta as an example right now, because it’s quite topical. I’m sure you’ve seen the news: Cenovus and Husky are merging, and they’re going to lay off 25 percent of their staff. That province continues to face challenges as it relates to the energy sector, and they keep trying the same old thing. So the problem they have is they need to innovate. The question I would have for them is, Who’s at the table giving the advice? Is it a group of people that come from a similar perspective? Is it a group of people, for example, that have always worked in oil and gas?

I would say that the solution for Alberta is to get some diversity around the table. And I’m not just talking about ethnocultural diversity or gender diversity; I’m talking about industry diversity and [geographical] diversity, and a lot of difference around the table to think about the problem differently. The means to get to the solution is diversity.

To get D&I right, you need a business case—it’s basically about the why. You suggest focusing on three things: people, customers and brand.

I’m a big believer in the business case. And people will tell you, Oh, we’ve proven the business case, and the business case is, it’s the right thing to do. That is not a business case. That is a moral imperative, and it’s not one that everyone agrees with.

People, because it’s who you hire, who you retain, who you promote and who you fire. Your customer—and everybody has customer…in some way, shape or form, regardless of what you call them. Who is your customer, and do you understand the needs of your customer?

The percentage of people in the Greater Toronto area who have English or French as a second or third language is somewhere in the range of, like, 40 percent. And I think it’s about 26 percent that speak something other than English or French at home. So the needs of the customer for the City of Toronto is to ensure that they’re able to communicate with these people in languages that they understand.

Third is your brand, which is about how you’re known. That impacts your people, and it impacts your customer. How are you perceived in the market? Are you known to be an inclusive employer? If you think about oil and gas, what’s their brand? Their brand is white men. That’s just what their brand is, and they haven’t really done anything to address that.

How you’re known will impact the people that apply for jobs, the people that stay with the organization and, of course, the customer. Because if I’m living in Surrey and I go to city hall and I’m South Asian and someone’s racist toward me, it’s not going to go well.

The three pieces are interconnected and interrelated. It simplifies the conversation.

How has COVID changed the D&I equation?

New mothers and people with disabilities have been fighting for decades for the ability to work from home. And employers said, No, we can’t do it, we have to work from the office. And then at the beginning of March, they figured out how to work from home very quickly. So all of a sudden, we’ve got everybody working from home. Great. So now certain groups have really benefited from that.

The flipside is we’ve seen significant impact on mental health. For some people, it’s really getting very bad because of the isolation. And there’s an impact of, first of all, staring at a screen for eight-plus hours a day, being on camera. We’re losing camaraderie among teams. And of course, we then default to our paradigms of cloistering with people of likeness. So the people that we are socializing with are of the same ilk, and that can exclude people from the conversation.

 There have been a lot of impacts as a consequence of COVID, aside from the fact that there’s a higher percentage of people of colour that are becoming infected and dying. We’re definitely seeing impacts that we never thought were coming.

You’ve seen what you call diversity fatigue in many organizations. Can you talk about that?

I would say it’s very similar to COVID fatigue, where people are tired. They’re tired of wearing masks, they’re tired of isolating, they’re tired and tired. It’s the same thing with diversity, where we get tired because the progress is always very slow. I describe it as the Incremental Revolution, because it’s a revolution that is happening at a very slow pace. And that’s not a bad thing, because what we’re talking about is systemic change. And change takes time to solidify and become permanent in an organization or in a society.

But the consequence of that, if you’re one of the people who is either doing the work or is impacted by the work—so if you’re a person of colour, a woman, Indigenous, et cetera—it gets tiring waiting constantly for your chance to come.