Avoid these diversity and inclusion mistakes

Companies have spent billions on D&I training, but studies suggest it's not easy to get it right. Here are five tips to avoid common mistakes.
Avoid these diversity and inclusion mistakes

Companies have spent billions on diversity and inclusion training to create work environments in which employees recognise and embrace differences amongst co-workers. In 2016, an analysis of 260 studies suggested D&I programmes can work, but getting them right isn't easy.

Common mistakes include assuming a root cause of a D&I problem without research, going for easy fixes, promising the impossible, and focusing on diversity representation rather than the talent pipeline, a report by management consultant Korn Ferry suggests.

Diversity experts emphasise that programmes need to be carefully planned and have support from all levels of management.

"For any programme to be successful, it has to be championed and led from the top, not just by HR," said Hephzi Pemberton, chief executive of the Equality Group, a UK consultancy and executive recruiter that helps finance and technology companies develop D&I strategies. "Then it must be linked to having very clear and measurable goals and targets around what you want to achieve."

Tony Vickers-Byrne, chief adviser for HR Practice at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), a professional body for 150,000 HR and learning and development professionals in the UK, Ireland, the Middle East, and Asia, observed that organisations can make basic mistakes in job advertisements.

In the UK, where anti-discrimination laws include bias based on age, prospective employers looking to hire within a broad age group have been known to post advertisements with photos showing only people in their 20s.

How to avoid common mistakes

Employers who want to improve performance on D&I metrics, which tend to be specific to a business and the local context and may include recruitment and retention goals, might keep the following five lessons from diversity experts in mind:

Collect the data and identify gaps

Employers should take a measure at each stage of the pipeline, from recruitment to hire, pay, and promotion. Quantitative recruitment data, for example, can be tracked based on the number of applicants, number of telephone interviews, final interviews, and hiring rates and should include the precise number of candidates in desirable categories who are being shortlisted.

Employee satisfaction surveys provide qualitative data that can help detect opportunities for improvement.

Only sufficient collection and analysis of data will help ensure that employers avoid unconscious bias.

"Just as you wouldn't have a financial business plan without significant data analysis, you shouldn't have a significant D&I programme without the same scrutiny of data," Vickers-Byrne said.

Data can indicate the extent to which a company differs from other benchmarks and is relevant to a number of diversity targets, including age, disability, ethnicity, and gender. A report on the gender pay gap and gender equality by the UK Government Equalities Office determined that restructuring systems and using evidence-based design of hiring practices, promotion procedures, and compensation schemes are the best ways to improve D&I initiatives.

Looking at diversity within a broader context, meanwhile, means identifying often overlooked areas such as neurodiversity (neurocognitive differences include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, Tourette's syndrome, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression), sexual orientation, and religion.

"The conversation often gets stuck in gender, which is the natural place to start, but not the entirety," Hephzi Pemberton said.

Don't opt for easy solutions

The Korn Ferry report mentions some "quick fixes" that organisations often look to implement, including employee resource groups and diversity or unconscious bias training.

While all can be powerful, they are frequently implemented ineffectively, without a D&I strategy or mechanisms to re-enforce lessons. Also, bias training isn't always effective or sufficient to ensure bias-free hiring. To help recruiters put aside their biases, details that may identify a candidate's ethnic background (LinkedIn profile photo), gender, age, etc., can be removed from job applications.

"We have to avoid that tick-the-box mentality," Vickers-Byrne said. "Just running mandatory D&I training doesn't mean you are going to have any lasting behavioural change. It's about opening up people's minds and stressing the benefits to the business of improved diversity, as well as explaining to line managers the problems that they might experience if they don't manage their employees in a fair and structured way."

Middle managers are often key to integrating D&I policies within a corporate culture, said Cat Ommanney, director of MHP Communications, a London-based communications consultancy. They have to be aware that progress is not just a question of gender parity, but also of ethnicity, education, disability, and even neurodiversity, Ommanney said. Even a workforce that has similar numbers of women and men is likely to be more homogeneous in other ways, she added.

"Only 7% of executives at top firms in the UK are from a black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) background, despite making up 13% of the general population," she said. "One-fifth of asset managers went to either Oxbridge [Oxford and Cambridge] or [another leading university]. It's complete tunnel vision, and you are going to come up with the same ideas and make the same mistakes over and over again if you are so narrowly focused."

Understanding personal experience is a key part of understanding diversity, said Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer at Workhuman, a maker of cloud-based human capital management software solutions headquartered in Framingham, Massachusetts in the US, and Dublin, Ireland.

Men may perceive that they have nothing to contribute to the conversation, Steve Pemberton said, adding that this can cause many of them to shut down. "A lot of the collisions that do unfold are really due to a lack of awareness of how broad a context of demography you should be changing."

Make someone accountable

Another reason D&I programmes fail, the Korn Ferry report suggests, is that organisations focus on goals for representation at the top without building up diversity in the internal talent pipeline, a process that is likely to require robust preparation of the talent acquisition function and hiring managers.

At Public Health England, the government executive agency where Vickers-Byrne was previously HR director and its chief adviser for diversity and inclusion and staff wellbeing, the chairs of the employee diversity networks could meet regularly with the chief executive without HR being involved. That enabled them to be "frank about what are reasonable diversity goals and any problems faced by employees with different protected characteristics", he said. Indeed, diversity networks can bolster the chief executive's leadership by helping them reflect the employees' voice.

Typically, making progress requires having an accountable committee or task group that is diverse, including not just minorities but also people who aren't as connected to the topic around the table, Hephzi Pemberton said.

Having a representative for protected groups, or executive champions in the area of diversity, can also be useful, Vickers-Byrne said. These individuals sit outside of the HR function and can help support line managers and advise them on what options that have worked in other parts of the organisation's operations are available to them.

Keep flexibility as an option

The importance of flexible working to diversity and inclusion cannot be overstated, Vickers-Byrne said. Evaluating the work/life balance of employees — especially those with caring responsibilities — can help promote a return to the workplace for experienced individuals who might otherwise be lost from the workplace.

"Evidence shows that once people are able to live reasonably on their salary, then more would prefer flexible working to higher salaries," he said.

Flexible working environments also allow organisations to attract a wider range of people at different life stages, Hephzi Pemberton said, including younger people who are looking to pursue other interests in addition to their careers.

Flexible working arrangements also offer a crucial way of getting men, as well as women, onboard with diversity programmes, those interviewed told FM.

Don't overpromise

Setting diversity targets can be challenging and can even potentially undermine overall D&I aims if companies make bold promises without having thought about how to achieve them.

"It takes longer than you think, and it involves behaviour change," Hephzi Pemberton said. "You need training and coaching, and often there is a lack of budget."

Vickers-Byrne said, "Particularly when you are developing internal targets, they need to be developed with line managers, executives, and employee networks so they can be owned rather than imposed from above. If the majority of BAME and female appointees are nonexecutives rather than executives, then you need to flag that up."

Demonstrating the business case for diversity is key, he said. "Employers who have relied on traditional pipelines to fill posts are missing the opportunity to bring in new diverse talent. They need to take positive action to get new skills, experience, and thinking into the pipeline."

According to the World Economic Forum, bringing people from diverse backgrounds together is a key driver of innovation. Studies suggest that diverse management teams generate more revenue, and a diverse workforce improves company culture.

Andrea Chipman is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor,