When it comes to inclusivity, individual acts aren’t enough

boardroom of diverse people, diversity, black inclusion, successful leaderIn 2021 inequality and inclusivity are going to be on the agenda for every business.

The momentum that started in 2020 has consolidated and it is clear that diversity and inclusion has elevated from a CSR obligation, into a live business conversation. And not before time.

Inclusive organisations enable talent to thrive. Diverse organisations are more productive and profitable. Equality in the workplace is at the heart of equality in society, and will be the catalyst for the change we all want to see.

However, making an impact on diversity and inclusion remains difficult, and whilst we are led to believe there is a playbook and best practice to be followed; in reality it is more cultural than organisational, and operates at an unconscious as well as a visible level. The result is that action/outcome is less linear and change is slower than many business leaders are used to creating an opportunity to potentially fall back into becoming a tick-box activity.

Yet making a material impact requires businesses to take a more strategic and holistic view. Diversity and inclusion doesn’t happen in isolation; the paradox at the heart of many diversity programmes is that inclusion requires a one-team approach, but often gets handled by isolating a group with that specific focus. This may address a short-term diversity action but fails on achieving true inclusion. Single acts do not change a whole business, just like with any transformation process. If your ambition remains stuck at KPIs and blind CVs you will not deliver a step change. Human understanding as well as business knowledge needs to be applied. And if you are a business that is truly ready to embrace diversity, there are clear elements that need to be considered.

When it comes to affinity bias – tackle both sides

The importance and impact of unconscious bias is a hotly contested topic at the moment, used as a catch all to explain inequality and a silver bullet to solve it. Moving beyond the generalisations, there is no doubt in my mind that affinity bias is a material barrier to breaking the cycle of a lack of diversity. We all naturally gravitate to similarity, and it is easy to see why this perpetuates “people like us” hiring – often wrapped up in justifications like “hiring for cultural fit”. It’s human instinct to naturally lean towards choosing someone who you warm to rather than who actually plugs a gap in your business. The good news is that this innate desire can be overridden. The right strategies for hiring have to be designed and implemented to address affinity. To compliment the process, there needs to be consistent reminders to the interviewing team about the trap of affinity bias. Reconfirming the potential pitfalls forces those interviewing to consciously be aware of this natural bias for the duration of an interview.

Look beyond previous experience when hiring

Too often employee candidates are judged by their previous experience, or lack of, rather than their aptitude and capability. From a glance, it makes sense – choose someone who can hit the ground running. Short term it may be a good decision, long term there is a detrimental impact. Using this mindset to hire creates a ‘typical’ person resulting in an extremely poor range of diversity of thought. It’s harder than it seems to break this pattern – it requires cross-functional commitment. The way managers are trained in assessing candidates will have to be done in a new way. Entry level criteria will have to be rethought both culturally and intellectually, reviewing the need for minimum qualifications. There will need to be training and coaching programmes in place to turn aptitude into ability. On top of all of this, the most important aspect, it will rely on teams having patience and space to accept that the individual will not immediately be fully effective from day one.

Inclusion comes before diversity

To achieve diversity, inclusion has to be a primary focus as increasing new talent is only half of the battle. It is equally as important that the culture within the existing organisation is changed to ensure it is a welcoming place. In the short-term hiring may shift the dial, but it won’t deliver successful outcomes if diverse thinkers are either assimilated or alienated – staff retention is crucial. Employees make the business, so there should be no short cut taken when it comes to diversity of inclusion.

Make impact at the roots

To truly challenge and change diversity for good, focus must be placed on having a positive effect as early as possible. Organisations such as Code First Girls or Speakers for Schools engage with diverse students in study, training and career planning and hold the key for diverse futures in businesses. By supporting and engaging with organisations that are wanting to change things for younger generations, your team will truly see how much of a focus diversity is and it’s not solely for the KPI ‘quick wins’.

There is no simple answer to shifting the dial when it comes to diversity and inclusion but there is no doubt the elements outlined will move businesses in the right direction. Multiple actions need to take place throughout organisations from the top to bottom to ensure they truly transform and to change imbalance not only for ourselves but for the future generations.

About the author

Emma Robertson ENGINE Transformation CEO, Emma Robertson, has over 25 years of experience advising emerging and global companies on how to utilise data, technology and insights to transform and future-proof their businesses. With a strong track record in delivering result-driven, customer-centred projects, Emma has worked with market leading companies including E.ON, Santander, P&O, eBay, and Tesco and led the consulting team at the heart of Argos’ digital transformation for 5 years.
In addition to consultancy experience, Emma has also worked brand-side for BT, and as Head of eCommerce focused on customer experience (CX) and multi-channel strategies.

Emma is passionate about championing diversity and inclusion, especially within the data and technology industry, and is executive sponsor of ENGINE’s Inclusion Programme, as well as supporting other organisations including CodeFirst: Girls.


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