We explore why companies fail in their diversity and inclusion initiatives – and how you can succeed in making positive change happen.

The arguments for creating a diverse and inclusive workplace are persuasive. It can improve talent retention. It helps organizations meet Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) best practices. And it enables you to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.

But it’s unlikely you’ll achieve and sustain real diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) through quick fixes and cynical marketing ploys. This is a hearts and minds issue requiring a long-term commitment not only to the bottom line but also to the health and wellbeing of your employees.

It means a systemic company culture change. It means a shift supported by a strategy with clear, measurable objectives, and it means a transformation that touches every part of the working day.

For managers and leaders looking to do more and do better, this article explores where you might start – and how to sustain your efforts for the long term.

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Why do diversity and inclusion initiatives fail?

Why do diversity and inclusion initiatives fail?

Change, even when you choose to make it happen, brings resistance. And in the case of inclusion and diversity, tackling the problem may seem too complex or time consuming – studies show that most companies spend no more than 20% of their time on D&I.1 Meanwhile, employees may not think change is possible, or they may feel singled out as part of a ‘minority group’ or react against the prospect of reverse discrimination.

A lack of leadership buy-in

"For many organizations, a direct DEI connection to their mission has not been made by leadership," according to Terry Yosie, former President and CEO of the World Environment Center. This inattentiveness or non-receptivity, he says, then cascades down through the business.

There are many reasons why this might be the case - from C-suite apathy or lack of focus to a lack of clarity on the ROI and an absence of reliable metrics to measure progress. Less than 50% of companies know how effective their D&I programs really are [SC7].

The CEO should champion any D&I initiatives. They're also on the hook for their progress and for embedding these values into the company's objectives and mission statement.

Nielsen's CEO, David Kenny, took on the Chief Diversity Officer role so he could "set hard targets for ourselves and make those transparent to our board and measure them like we measure other outcomes like financial results."

The impact of mandatory participation

Harvard-led research in the US showed that mandatory diversity training often results in fears of being negatively labeled – as a racist, for example. It can also breed resentment, usually towards women and other underrepresented groups who made those pieces of training a necessity.

Having the choice to participate allows individuals to feel a sense of involvement and pride, making the experience more meaningful.

The box-ticking approach

Champion of diversity and founder of BWG Solutions, Janice Gassam Asare, suggests that D&I training is often reactive. It happens after something has gone wrong as a form of damage limitation. This can seem disingenuous, poorly motivated and reflect an inconsistent approach to implementation.

Programs shouldn’t be box-ticking exercises, she says. Simply having them doesn’t guarantee their effectiveness.

The key lies in a consistent approach that focuses on changing the limiting beliefs and behaviors associated with D&I and making it relevant to everyone. And that, perhaps controversially, includes the dominant group within many organizations - white men.

As part of a 'respectful workplace' that advocates transparency and equal opportunities, all employees should be represented in planning, problem-solving, and decision-making processes.

Diversity without inclusion and equity

D&I programs fail when diversity and inclusion are not considered in tandem or exclude equity from the mix.

A business that employs many women, people of color, or individuals with neurodiversity or a physical disability isn't necessarily inclusive.

Diversity is essentially a numbers game. Inclusivity involves personal empowerment. It ensures that every employee feels able to be themselves, affect decision-making, and speak up without negative consequences.

Equity is the pursuit of fairness and equal opportunities. It seeks a balance of power and involves supporting everyone in achieving their unique potential. For example, ensuring adequate wheelchair access or offering couples' health insurance to same-sex couples as well as heterosexual partners.

Being inauthentic and inconsistent

Putting a Pride logo on your products or celebrating Black History Month only goes so far if it’s not backed up in other areas of the business. Paying lip service to racial equality but paying minimum wage (or less) to black or brown workers abroad is a marketing misfire, not a D&I strategy.

“Paying lip service to racial equality but paying minimum wage (or less) to black or brown workers abroad is a marketing misfire, not a D&I strategy.”

How to promote diversity and inclusion at work

How to promote diversity and inclusion at work

Having achieved buy-in from the main stakeholders, leaders need to build a successful D&I strategy on a clear vision. What does success look like? What are the key milestones we need to get there? How do we make it part of the overall business strategy?

You're aiming to get to the root cause of any issues rather than looking at the symptoms. Even here, bias can influence the process. Therefore, you need to take a considered approach with decisions, as far as possible, based on data and facts.

Focus on the fundamentals

Are the members of your D&I task force on the same page? According to the United Nations, there are over 30 characteristics that represent diversity.2 As a result, diversity means different things to different people. It also operates at different levels, or dimensions, for individuals within your organization.

Diversity falls into four main categories.

  1. Internal identity

    The demographic qualities that we are most likely to be born into, like race and ethnicity. Physical ability and neurodiversity are also included along with age and generation (for example, Gen X and Millennials). Sexuality and gender fall into this category too.

  2. External identity

    Characteristics that may change over time. For example, education, socioeconomic status, religion, citizenship and geographical location.

  3. Organizational diversity

    Including roles and responsibilities, seniority level, department and union affiliation.

  4. Worldview diversity

    Covers political affiliation, cultural background, and historical knowledge. We see the world differently depending on our experiences within it.

    Bias and discrimination can occur in one or more of these areas and may affect employees at different levels of the business differently. For example, there may be many female employees but few in senior leadership positions.

Where are you now?

Where are you now?

Few companies today are starting diversity and inclusion initiatives from scratch. It's essential to recognize what you have achieved so far and where you're falling short.

This means asking questions like:

  • What’s already in place to support greater diversity and inclusion?

  • Is it creating meaningful change?

  • How are we measuring progress?

  • Are we meeting our deadlines?

  • What have we learned?

  • Where are we failing as a business?

  • Is the current focus broad enough – is everyone included?

  • How high is the level of awareness within the organization?

  • Do we have adequate resources to sustain or increase the current rate of change?

  • Where are the greatest opportunities to make improvements?

As well as interrogating any data you have, this process relies heavily on employee feedback.

Involve everyone in the D&I conversation

There can be a big difference in how leaders and employees perceive and experience diversity and inclusion within your organization.

A successful D&I strategy represents many voices. It evolves through discussion, debate, focus groups, feedback, and connections forged throughout the business – which need ongoing maintenance.

The critical challenge is that some groups or individuals may find it difficult or impossible to speak up for cultural or personal reasons. A safe forum for all contributions is essential to move the conversation forward – a need often met by confidential, anonymous staff surveys.

Clear, transparent and effective communication is a vital component of a D&I strategy. This includes letting every employee know how they can play their part, plus regular updates on progress, the introduction and explanation of any new or updated objectives, and the celebration of successes.

Track your progress

Establishing relevant metrics grounds your D&I strategy in reality. But while diversity can be relatively easy to measure, inclusion is more complex. Values, beliefs, knowledge, and skills are difficult to define because they're primarily context-specific - particularly within a global business.

Organizational consultancy Kornferry suggests measuring both behavioral and structural inclusion within your business. Behaviors relate to mindsets, skillsets and relationships. Structure refers to the systems, processes and practices that work for your employees and customers.

And it's worth taking the time to get it right.

Gartner research reveals that organizations which confidently measure D&I create accountability amongst their employees and report up to 20% more organizational inclusion than peers who don’t follow this approach.

5 ways to measure inclusion and diversity

5 ways to measure inclusion and diversity

  1. Talent acquisition and retention

    Understanding why people are joining your company and why they leave is a helpful marker. Diversity and inclusion are vital considerations for job seekers – 76% of candidates factor D&I when making decisions on job offers.3 Meanwhile, offboarding interviews can provide valuable insights into why employees go elsewhere.

  2. Employee engagement

    An inclusive company values and respects its employees and their contribution. This leads to increased engagement and loyalty. Quick pulse surveys can offer more relevant and helpful insights with situations changing more frequently than annual reviews can reflect.

  3. Intersectional analysis

    This provides a comprehensive overview of the diversity within your organization, highlighting areas of under-representation and recruitment bias. It considers the overlapping factors that influence your employees - Asian men under a certain age, for example, or white college-educated women.

  4. Customer trust

    D&I increases engagement. Research has shown that 38% of customers are more likely to trust brands that offer diversity in their advertising. Sixty-four percent will take action after seeing an ad they consider diverse or inclusive.

  5. Personal objectives

    Including D&I objectives for all leaders and managers ensures that accountability is spread throughout the business and allows measurement on an individual basis. For example, within the BBC, each leader’s performance and progress are assessed based on gender, ethnicity, disability, and LGBTQ+ equity goals.4

Rising to the challenge of diversity and inclusion

Rising to the challenge of diversity and inclusion

Your business is not operating in a vacuum. Diversity, equity and inclusion have become a global priority along with all the legislation, regulation, resources and support that goes with it.

But at a grassroots level, it relies on you having some difficult conversations. It requires you to unpack the conscious and unconscious biases that get in the way of progress and to listen to your employees' experiences.

Bringing in a third party to help you navigate those challenges objectively can help you fully address and move beyond them.

It's not an easy path but, done well, it's undeniably the right one for you, your people and your business.

Keep reading


Why is Diversity and Inclusion important?

Learn More
1 "8 of the Most Common Challenges for Diversity Equity & Inclusion Today", Affirmity, 2021
2 "What diversity really means, and why it’s crucial in the workplace", BetterUp, 2021
3 "Diversity & Inclusion Workplace Survey", Glassdoor, 2020
4 "Tim Davie's introductory speech as BBC Director-General", BBC, 2020
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