I have been working with several organisations recently supporting them in developing both their approach and their policies on diversity and inclusion. I have been struck by a few common themes which I wanted to share.

1. The use of terminology. I am convinced that this is important. If you do not know what you stand for, what your purpose as an organisation is or what good would look like, how will you know you have been successful? The companies I have worked with have used the terms equality, diversity, inclusion, and fairness interchangeably. In my experience they are quite different concepts. There is no hierarchy of importance where one is better than another. The significant thing is a need for clarity of thought and communication on where the organisational focus is and why. Having a clear statement that is easily communicated and understood by all is vital. It does not have to be clever or unique. It just needs to be authentic.

2. In our desire to get senior leadership teams to buy into the importance of diversity we often focus on the business case, believing that the perceived financial benefits will make a convincing argument. The moral case should be viewed as equally, if not more, compelling. I think we should be proud about focusing on doing the right things to ensure we have fairness in our organisations for all. My view is that we should focus our attention on the proven benefits of having fairness and equity at work. Examples of this are greater happiness and engagement of staff, less sickness, less staff turnover, and more diverse teams leading to greater innovation. Ironically, these things alone may improve business performance and drive better financial results.

3. Despite their best intentions, I have not yet come across an organisation that has demonstrated a top down, bottom up mindset that mainstreams inclusion. Senior teams are still requiring persuasion that inclusion is of benefit to the workforce and the organisational strategy. People are different in many ways and inclusion is about all of this. An organisation genuinely committed to inclusion creates the conditions that allow everyone to be able to bring their whole selves to work. This is not just a soft, feel good approach. Research shows that this positively impacts on wellbeing, resilience, and a feeling of being valued, respected, and listened to.

4. I do not think we pay enough attention to ‘privilege’ or focus on the fact that privileged people often don’t know they have it. Privilege comes in many forms, related to our education, our background, where we live, the people we network with, our political beliefs and so on. Those with the ‘right’ constellation of privileges for the environment receive greater encouragement and experience and less scrutiny, helping to engender a greater sense of belonging than the rest of the workforce. Making a case for economics over fairness, explaining why the privileged should be magnanimous only serves to reinforce the way we currently do things.

5. Unconscious bias, although now talked about a lot, has not really been addressed. I believe it is used as an excuse for leaders to avoid taking accountability for their own biased thinking or behaviour. For example, only last week someone told me they had promoted a man over a 

woman. When asked the reasons, the manager told me the woman had just returned from maternity leave and they thought she may not be as committed to the job.

6. Lack of communication. I have observed that, because senior leadership teams don’t always have clarity about what they want to do and what good looks like, they don’t tell a powerful and convincing story to gain the support of the workforce. I have also heard senior people say that they would rather act quietly to avoid a backlash. This approach will never get traction or support.

Unconscious bias, although now talked about a lot, has not really been addressed

So, what can we do?

This is not just about setting up minority fora or running a couple of positive action programmes for traditionally regarded disadvantaged groups. It is about a whole system organisational response. We need to ensure that we give everyone a voice that is heard and respected. This means focusing equally on:

  • Being clear on our focus, our aspirations and knowing what we want to achieve.
  • Looking at how we allocate resources and clarity in our communications with everyone about why this is.
  • Getting the basics right. Having proper data, processes and policies in place that can be interrogated to make the best decisions.
  • An established and expected way of how we treat and work with each other. Dealing with unconscious bias is a daily, mindful activity. We need to retrain our brains and catch ourselves with our biased thoughts in the moment. It is no different to working out our muscles regularly at the gym.
  • Role modelling the way we treat each other should be the norm for everyone and challenging unacceptable behaviour in a positive and educational way to encourage questioning and curiosity.
  • To constantly talk and communicate with each other about why, as Binna Kandola calls it, ‘organisational justice’ is important, sharing progress and good practice.

To discuss this further please contact [email protected]

Lubna Haq

Lubna is an experienced business leader. Most recently she worked as a partner in a global company responsible for designing and introducing leadership programmes targeted at middle managers.