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How should companies prioritize diversity and inclusion?

Published on November 2nd, 2022

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The public demand it, politicians legislate for it and organizations write policies about it. But how can we prioritize diversity and inclusion in practical ways that make a real difference in the workplace? 

We talk a lot about inclusion being good for your productivity, creativity and performance in organizations – McKinsey have published annual reports for the past five or six years showing a noticeable financial and profitability advantage to more diverse and inclusive organizations.

Ethical business case

But in this rush to make the business case, we must not forget the ethical case. It is the right thing to do. Our employees, customers and partners have a right to expect us to treat them fairly, to value and respect them and to make reasonable adjustments which will help them feel included, welcomed and safe to be themselves. 

The default culture is not inclusive. This is partly an evolutionary trait and partly self-interest. After all, when you start an organization, you want to make it work for you. So you build a culture that suits you and looks after your own interests. Our evolutionary instincts have bred a distrust of difference – after all, in a competition for limited resources, difference may mean someone stronger than you, which means you lose the resources. Evolution ensured that groups of people more suspicious of difference survived longer!

Change has come

It is one of the successes of the 21st Century that this attitude of exclusion has begun to change.  

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that it is easy; nor does it mean that everyone has simultaneously reached the same conclusion that the time to change has come. Overrepresented groups have a vested interest in the status quo – equity means more competition for the best jobs, sharing power with others and accepting that someone else might have a better perspective or opinion. 

A hidden advantage

In defence of the overrepresented, your own advantages are often hidden from yourself. If you haven’t had to struggle against adversity, you don’t see it as an advantage, you take it for granted. At the risk of repetition, however, it is clear that this claim of ignorance is wearing thin. Anyone who has watched or read the news in the past three or four years – since the start of the #MeToo movement or the murder of George Floyd must now be aware that diversity is a major factor and that inclusion is one of the biggest challenges facing society as well as business. 

Among the huge list of things that organizations can do to show that diversity is a priority, we want to highlight three: 

  • Getting buy-in 
  • Updating recruitment practices
  • Building an inclusive culture 

Getting buy-in

If you want to know what’s important to a person, there are two places you look: their bank account and the calendar. We can always find time and money for the things that are important to us; we are much more likely to decline a meeting on a topic we don’t find interesting or doesn’t inspire us than we are something that excites or stimulates. 

And in an organization, you can see the priorities by how the C-Suite fill their calendars. If you run a diversity event, does leadership actively, willingly and enthusiastically get involved? When they aren’t at a diversity event, how do leaders talk about diversity? Are they still as enthusiastic?  

If your organization’s leadership makes time and resources available for inclusion, others can see that and recognise its value. If they accept invitations and then cancel or turn up reluctantly, then everyone else will de-prioritize it too. 

Is your DEI team allocated sufficient budget, or do they have to beg for resources each time? Do you make time in the work allowance for diversity champions or do they have to do this role in their own time or in lunch breaks? In many organizations, time is a much tighter resource than money, so giving permission to those who promote your DEI strategy to incorporate activities into work time demonstrates your commitment. 

Most importantly, you need to be an organization that listens well. If you engage in a one-way DEI initiative, you are not valuing the diversity of perspectives and the needs of those who are not heard. If you have ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) or diversity networks, make sure they are involved in writing and implementing your diversity and inclusion strategies.  

But don’t forget you need the buy-in of the whole organization – make sure that everyone has the opportunity to input and comment on inclusive practices. The quickest way to ensure that inclusion fails is to start by excluding anyone from the consultations. 

And by the way, the listening process doesn’t end – it is a continuous, ongoing process that should inform regular updates to the strategy and its implementation. 

Updating Recruitment Practices

In practical terms, one of the most effective ways to increase and prioritize diversity and inclusion is through your recruitment and reward programs. 

In most countries, setting a specific recruitment quota is illegal. Similarly, you cannot mandate interviewing a certain percentage of people from a specific underrepresented group – the so-called Rooney Rule in the NFL in the United States. And in fact, the Rooney Rule has done nothing to increase the representation of black coaches in American football. 

However, it is legal and indeed recommended to ensure that your recruitment practices are as fair as possible. Some simple suggestions include: 

  • Remove names from application forms. If you accompany this with removing the names and locations of educational establishments you can remove several potential sources of unconscious bias. 
  • Use mixed gender and/or race interview panels. Ensure you don’t over-rely on the same people to break up your male, white panels, and of course, the panel needs to be relevant to the role, but it is easier to challenge assumptions if you have different perspectives. 
  • Get advice from specialists on the wording of your job ads – research shows that the wording and dissuades some groups from applying despite having the ideal qualifications and traits for the role.  
  • Remove ‘cultural fit’ from your recruitment criteria. ‘Cultural fit’ is a euphemism for ‘looks like me, sounds like me, behaves like me’ and will undermine any attempt to diversify a team. 

And finally, keep an eye on your data. Watch out for teams either with high turnover or with very low turnover – both can indicate that there is a tight in-group or clique which is not inclusive. Challenging managers whose teams significantly differ from the norms can also highlight excellent inclusive practices – they may be doing something so right that the team is inclusive and working well. And it has the advantage that you will also see where it works less well! 

Building an Inclusive Culture 

It may seem self-evident that you need to build an inclusive culture, but in reality, it is something that is difficult and requires constant attention. 

There is a saying that a dog will forgive 7 years of neglect with one day of love; but a cat will forget seven years of love with one day of neglect. Inclusion definitely exhibits feline tendencies! You can destroy your investment of time and energy if you don’t constantly show that equality, equity and inclusion are important.  

Building up the psychological safety that your employees need to be authentically themselves in the workplace takes time and is always fragile. That’s why it’s so important that leaders role model inclusion even when they think they’re not being watched! 

Be honest about your missteps, celebrate your successes and share your destination. Transparency may cause some short term pain, but it is the only way to ensure that inclusion becomes part of your organization’s DNA. 

Prioritizing inclusion and diversity is good for your organization, there is no doubt. It’s good for your employees as well – there is a strong correlation between physical and mental wellbeing and inclusive workplaces. When you get it right, everyone wins. 


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