Writing about diversity? Then keep it real

cartoon of flute and marathon number

A client recently asked me to help them with a brochure about their efforts to promote gender diversity at the firm. The job involved interviewing the company's female leaders about their experiences of the workplace.

During the interviews, one name kept cropping up as the company that got diversity right: McKinsey.

This consulting firm, every interviewee said, really knew how to look after its women. It was the firm they all regarded as the model for any company trying to build a more inclusive culture. I suspected it was the firm they all secretly wanted to work for.

Intrigued, I decided to check out the section about diversity on McKinsey’s site.

Here’s how McKinsey's women’s networking group describes itself:

Who we are We are world travelers, marathon runners, mothers. We work full-time, part-time, and everything in between. When we want to pursue an interest close to our hearts, we can. When we want to cut down on travel or take a break between projects, we do. With our firm's support, we create lasting impact.

The slightly corpy “impact” aside, I think this is great. It makes me want to join this band of globe-trotting, maternal athletes (and I am neither maternal nor athletic).

It makes me feel that at McKinsey I could change the world on my own terms, by my own body clock and still have time left over to master the flute.

Why? Because the language is human and concrete. It conveys a sense of real people doing real jobs. People with lives outside of the firm. In short, it demonstrates diversity.

By way of contrast, I thought I’d take a look at the diversity page of the first of McKinsey’s competitors that sprang to my mind.

Filed under “Impact areas”, the page opened with all the hectoring clichés of the typical company vision statement:

Our goal is to build the iconic professional services firm by delivering distinctive client service through the quality of our people. Inspiring and providing an environment in which all our people can give their best is fundamental to this aim. But we can only achieve it if we create a great place to work and have a culture that's genuinely inclusive and respectful, and which promotes wellbeing both at work and beyond.

There followed another 1,045 words of awful corporate drivel, from which all I took away is that:

1. The piece was written by someone who thought preceding something meaningless or impenetrable with the word “core” makes it sound really important (e.g., “core corporate sustainability objectives”, “global core competencies (GCCs)” and “embedding values into core processes and measurement”).

2. They’re proud of their “firm-wide, mandatory Open Minds training” (proof that big corporations don’t really get irony).

3. They “seek to meet” the standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (i.e., they seek to meet the standard of, among other things, not subjecting employees to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment).

4. Their “UK-wide sustained awareness and engagement campaign ... highlighted the value of difference” through photograph competitions and food festivals (because “talented” adults in a “high performance culture” don’t look around them/travel abroad/spend Saturday mornings mooching around Borough Market).

All in all, there was much talk of “brand propositions”, “external benchmarking” and “sustainability scorecards”, but not a great deal of humanity. Where McKinsey inspired me, this firm merely asserts the importance of inspiration.

Such cold and intangible business blurbage convinced me that they really did want to build “the iconic professional services firm”. For what is an icon but an image, an abstraction, something not real?

I suspect the difference between this firm and McKinsey is that the latter is further along in the diversity stakes. That’s why McKinsey doesn’t need to hide a lack of achievement behind a torrent of mealy-mouthed biz speak.

Indeed, I suspect McKinsey still has a way to go in other aspects of diversity, if the words of its head of the Hispanic/Latino Client Service Staff employee network are anything to go by:

“At McKinsey, we’re committed to our values, client service, and our network, and to leveraging this within the Hispanic and Latino community".

(Er, ok then.)

Lessons 1. Don’t tell us about your commitment to diversity – show us how diverse you are. Read more about “show, don’t tell”.

2. Be concrete, not abstract. Don't bombard me with objectives, propositions and scorecards. Show me actual human beings doing actual jobs.

3. If you’ve some way to go, be honest and down to earth about that too.

4. Nobody, ever (except me, perhaps) is going to read 1,117 words of abstract corporate drivel. Especially online. Keep it short or the whole thing just looks like box-ticking (“we’ve written all this, so we must value diversity”). And that undermines your claims even more.

5. Know your audience. McKinsey's website spoke to me as a potential employee. The competitor's site seemed to be written by a committee that was trying to convince the firm's senior "stakeholders" of the business benefits of diversity.