The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.

Over the last 50 years, the United States has passed legislation outlawing discrimination based on religion, race, gender, sexual orientation and political affiliation. In fact, Wisconsin was the first state in the country to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation back in 1982. Yet, as the racial and ethnic composition of the country continues to change, and the disruptive business landscape requires new skills and unique perspectives in the workforce, it’s no longer enough for companies to simply remain within the laws. To spur growth and engagement in the workforce, today’s leaders must redefine their corporate communities to create welcoming environments that go beyond a standard diversity and inclusion program.

Diversity and Inclusion Drives Innovation
Embracing diversity and demonstrating an ongoing commitment to employees not only drives innovation and productivity, but helps to promote a culture of learning, increases revenue, and helps to attract and retain new talent. A study by Bank of America Merrill Lynch found that gender-diverse companies perform 15 percent better than those that lack D&I efforts, and ethnically diverse businesses perform 35 percent better.

As noted by Katie Burke, Chief People Officer at HubSpot Inc., the only way to stay relevant and competitive in today’s global economy is to ensure that the diversity of the workforce reflects the diversity of the customers that an organization is serving. Companies dedicated to creating and maintaining a diverse and inclusive culture will see a significant ROI because their employees are at the center of important changes. When people feel accepted, valued and engaged in the workplace, new ideas and innovations thrive, which allows companies to strengthen relationships with shareholders as they authentically meet and exceed the market’s needs.

Embracing Two-Dimensional Diversity
Looking beyond race, gender or nationality to embrace acquired diversity, such as technological literacy, military experience and language skills, is another fundamental step for organizations seeking to build out their D&I efforts. According to a report from Harvard Business Review’s Center for Talent Innovation , companies that incorporate both inherent forms of diversity with these unique skill sets as part of the hiring process are 45 percent more likely to improve market share, and 75 percent more likely to implement marketable ideas than organizations that ignore such nuances in diversity.

Experts agree that teams are better off when there are multiple viewpoints or perspectives. This diversity of thinking fosters innovation and productivity, improving marketable ideas and market share. Greater diversity also sharpens competitive edge by making the workplace more reflective of buyers, by providing insight into how to create the best solutions for customers.

Inclusion Matters
Though often mistaken for the same concept, diversity and inclusion are two separate entities. Whereas building a diverse workforce is significant, inclusion helps individuals, and their companies succeed.

Fostering an inclusive culture in which employees feel comfortable expressing their true selves at work is the key element that will fuel innovation and drive results across the organization.

According to research conducted by Harvard Business Review , 37 percent of African Americans and Hispanics and 45 percent of Asians feel the need to conform to company standards to excel in their roles. Rita Sola Cook, Midwest Region Executive of Global Commercial Banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, believes the most effective approach to maintaining an inclusive workforce is encouraging employees to share their unique perspectives and express their differing points of view.

Empowering a New Workforce
At the end of the day, a company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion has a powerful impact on the morale of its workforce and its long-term growth. As reported in a recent Bank of America Merrill Lynch whitepaper, for every 10 percent increase in diversity and inclusion among executives, a company boosts profitability by 8 percent.

By embracing the nuances of diversity within today’s workforce and investing in employee resources that support and empower a culture of inclusion, companies will be better equipped to strengthen their competitive advantage in the market, promote innovation and drive sustained growth by helping a powerful, new workforce realize their full potential.

–Slocum is senior vice president of Global Commercial Banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Wisconsin.

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