Promoting and supporting diversity in the workplace is an important aspect of good people management - it’s about valuing everyone in the organisation as an individual. However, to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce it’s vital to have an inclusive environment where everyone feels able to participate and achieve their potential. While UK legislation – covering age, disability, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation among others – sets minimum standards, an effective diversity and inclusion strategy goes beyond legal compliance and seeks to add value to an organisation, contributing to employee well-being and engagement.
This factsheet explores what diversity and inclusion means in the workplace, and how an effective strategy can support an organisation’s business objectives. We look at the rationale for action, and then outline the steps organisations can take to implement and manage a successful diversity and inclusion strategy, from communication and training to addressing workplace behaviour and evaluating progress.
The moral case for building fairer and more inclusive labour markets and workplaces is indisputable: people matter, and organisations must ensure their people management approaches do not put any group at a disadvantage. Regardless of our identity or background, we all deserve the opportunity to develop our skills and talents to our full potential, work in a safe, supportive and inclusive environment, be fairly rewarded and recognised for our work and have a meaningful voice on matters that affect us.
But it’s also vital for the sustainability of businesses and economies. Everyone stands to benefit when we embrace and value the diversity of thoughts, ideas and ways of working that people from different backgrounds, experiences and identities bring to an organisation. It helps people grow and learn, tackles under-utilisation of skills by enabling people to reach their full potential, improves decision-making, boosts engagement and innovation, and enables businesses to better meet the needs of a diverse customer base.
What are diversity and inclusion?
Everyone is a unique person. Even though people have things in common with each other they are also different in all sorts of ways. Differences include visible and non-visible factors, for example, personal characteristics such as background, culture, personality, work-style, accent, language and so on. In the UK, age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, sex and sexual orientation, are ‘protected characteristics’ covered by discrimination law to give people protection against being treated unfairly.
It’s important to recognise that a ‘one-size-fits all’ approach to managing people does not achieve fairness and equality of opportunity for everyone. People have different personal needs, values and beliefs. Good people management practice demands that people propositions are both consistently fair but also flexible and inclusive in ways that are designed to support both individual and business needs.
Diversity is where difference is recognised and emphasised, but not actively leveraged to drive organisational success. There is acknowledgement of the benefit of having a range of perspectives in decision-making and the workforce being representative of the organisation’s customers.
Inclusion is where difference is seen as a benefit to use, and where perspectives and differences are shared, leading to better decisions. An inclusive working environment is one in which everyone feels valued, that their contribution matters and they are able to perform to their potential, no matter their background, identity or circumstances. Essentially it enables a diverse range of people to work together effectively.
‘Neurodiversity’ is a growing area of workplace inclusion. It refers to the natural range of differences in human brain function. Amongst employers, it’s used to describe alternative thinking styles including dyslexia, autism and ADHD as they relate to workplace diversity and inclusion. ‘Neurodivergent’ individuals can have unique strengths, including data-driven thinking, an ability to spot trends, and processing information at extraordinary speeds. It’s estimated that at least 10% of the UK population is neurodivergent. However, most workplaces are physically and structurally set up for ‘neurotypicals’, not enabling neurodivergent individuals to reach their potential, so employers are missing out on their strengths.
Together with Uptimize, we’ve produced Neurodiversity at work, a practical guide for employers. It helps encourage job applications from neurodivergent individuals, remove potential ‘friction points’ in the hiring process and enable employees to play to their strengths. Most adjustments are simple and low-cost, but can make a significant difference to an individual’s working life.
The social justice case for diversity
The social justice case is based on the belief that everyone should have a right to equal access to employment and training and development based solely on merit. Everyone should have the right to be free of any direct or indirect discrimination and harassment or bullying. This can be described as the right to be treated fairly, and the UK law, principally in the Equality Act 2010, sets minimum standards.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published a range of guidance on all aspects of the Equality Act 2010.
Diversity and inclusion are good for people and good for business
The ‘business case’ arguments build on the social justice arguments. They are not an alternative. It’s important to consider diversity and inclusion in both lights, because good decisions about people practices benefit workers, wider society, but also organisations as well. There are three main strands to building the argument for going beyond what is required by legislation: talent, market competitiveness, and corporate reputation. Relevant standards also play a role.
Research on the psychological contract shows that people want to work for employers with good employment practices. They also want to feel valued at work.
To be competitive, organisations need everyone who works for them to make their best contribution. Considering diversity and inclusion in its broadest sense helps organisations to develop an open and inclusive working culture.
Increasingly, employers recognise the importance of diversity and inclusion in recruiting and retaining the skills and talent they need. As well as designing appropriate and fair people practices, it’s important to create open and inclusive workplace cultures in which everyone feels valued, respects colleagues, and where their contribution is recognised. See more on avoiding unconscious bias in recruitment in our report A head for hiring.
Creating harmonious working environments also requires employers to combat prejudice, check stereotyping and have a zero tolerance approach to bullying, harassment and undignified and disrespectful behaviour.
A diverse workforce can help to inform the development of new or enhanced products or services, open up new market opportunities, improve market share and broaden an organisation’s customer base. However people need to feel they have a voice in the organisation if the benefits of different perspectives are to be realised. Examples include:
- Local authorities seeking to improve the way they provide services to diverse groups within their communities.
- Manufacturers and retailers offering products to satisfy a wider range of eating preferences.
- Health services seeking to provide more choice for patients through recognising their backgrounds and requirements.
Businesses need to consider corporate responsibility (CR) in the context of diversity as social exclusion and low economic activity rates can limit business markets and their growth. CR used to be centred on environmental issues, but an increasing number of employers now take a wider view, seeing the overall image of an organisation as important in attracting and retaining both customers and employees. Indeed, it can be argued that CR is part of the psychological contract between a firm and the community or communities in which it operates.
Ethical behaviour is essential in any organisation. Communicating and adhering to a strong set of values sends an important message to present and potential customers, suppliers and employees. Smart employers also take account of these issues in relation to their employer brand, to support talent attraction and retention.
Leading ‘dignity at work’ policies regard all forms of intimidating behaviour, including harassment and bullying, as contravening the values of an organisation and are treated as serious disciplinary matters.
Standards, such as the BSI and ISO human resource management suite and Investors in People (IiP), provide principled based frameworks and guidelines to help organisations recognise the actual and potential value of their people and ensure their people polices and working practices are bias free. See more on HR and standards.
Managing diversity and inclusion
Overcoming prejudice and changing entrenched negative attitudes about equality and diversity issues can be difficult. To progress diversity, organisations should focus on developing inclusive approaches to employment policies and practices and personal behaviours by managing equality and diversity issues in ways that also support business contexts and circumstances. Ultimately, action should be underpinned by the principles of equal opportunity, fairness and transparency. Organisations need to move from minimal compliance with legal duties and focus on engaging employees’ understanding of the importance of an inclusive workplace in ways that influence personal behaviours at work and also inform operational activities.
A coherent strategy is needed to ensure that all policies and working practices across the organisation support an inclusive culture which embraces difference. The strategy needs to be supported with a well-communicated value system reflecting the importance of diversity. All employees should be trained to understand and engage with this in the way they do their jobs and work with their colleagues.
- Ensure that initiatives and policies have the support of the board and senior management.
- Remember that managing diversity and developing a culture of inclusion is a continuous process of improvement, not a one-off initiative.
- Develop a diversity strategy to support the achievement of business goals, including ways of addressing the diverse needs of customers.
- Focus on fairness and inclusion, ensuring that merit, competence and potential are the basis for all decisions about recruitment and development, and be alert to the influence of conscious and unconscious biases.
- Keep up-to-date with the law and review policies through checks, audits and consultation.
- Encourage ownership of diversity and inclusion and discourage risk aversion, aiming to create an empowering culture so that decisions are not passed upwards without good reason.
- Design guidelines and provide training for line managers to help them respond appropriately to diversity needs, as they are vital change agents, but give them scope for flexible decision-making.
- Link diversity management to other initiatives such as such as Investors in People (IIP), BSI 76000 Valuing People and ISO 9001 Quality Management.
- Be aware that if your organisation operates internationally, its approach to managing diversity will need to take account of the ways that individual working styles and personal preferences are influenced by national cultures.
- Reflect respect and dignity for all in the organisation’s values and ensure these are reflected in the way the organisation and its employees operate on a daily basis.
- Aim to describe the desirable behaviours to gain positive commitment.
- Make clear that everyone has a personal responsibility to uphold the standards.
- Introduce mechanisms to deal with all forms of harassment, bullying and intimidating behaviour, making clear that such behaviour will not be tolerated and setting out the consequences of breaking the organisation’s behaviour code.
- Develop an open culture with good communication channels based on open dialogue and active listening.
- Ensure appropriate channels for employee voice and that different groups feel able to access them.
- Use different and accessible methods such as newsletters, in-house magazines, notice boards and intranets to keep people up to date with diversity policies and practices.
- Actively seek people’s ideas.
Learning and development
- Build diversity concepts and practices into staff training courses, management training and teambuilding programmes to increase awareness of the need to handle different views, perceptions and ideas in positive ways.
- Consider awareness-raising programmes, such as ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, about various aspects of diversity to help people appreciate difference and work together better.
- Include diversity issues in induction programmes, including raising awareness of employee network groups, so that all new employees know about the organisation’s values and policies.
- Train line managers about diversity, aiming to help them understand the issues and drive their support for organisational and operational policies and practices.
Measure, review and reinforce
- Regularly audit, review and evaluate progress and keep quantitative and qualitative data to chart progress and show business benefits.
- Use employee surveys to evaluate initiatives, to find out if policies are working for everyone, and to provide a platform for improvement.
- Track actions to see if they have had the intended results and make appropriate changes if necessary.
- Include diversity and inclusion objectives in job descriptions and appraisals, and recognise and reward achievement. For example, staff surveys could ask questions about the team culture and whether they feel there is equality of opportunity.
- Benchmark progress against other organisations and explore what others are doing to adopt and adapt ideas where appropriate.
- Network with others from inside and outside your organisation to keep up-to-date and to share learning.
- Celebrate successes and identify learning opportunities from failures, to use them as building blocks for further progress.
To further support progressing diversity and inclusion, see our report Game on! How to keep diversity progress on track.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
ACAS. (2014) Delivering equality and diversity. Advisory booklet. London: ACAS.
DEPARTMENT FOR BUSINESS INNOVATION AND SKILLS. (2013) The business case for equality and diversity: a survey of the academic literature. London: BIS.
FROST, S. and KALMAN, D. (2016) Inclusive talent management: how business can thrive in an age of diversity. London: Kogan Page.
MCANDREW, F. (2010) Workplace equality: turning policy into practice. London: Equality and Diversity Forum.
Visit the CIPD and Kogan Page Bookshop to see all our priced publications currently in print.
CASTRO, A. (2013) Rethinking diversity. T+D. Vol 67, No 2, February. pp36-40
JACOBS, K. (2013) Getting the right mix. Human Resources. August. pp22,24-27
JONES, P. (2011) What is unconscious bias? Equal Opportunities Review. No 215, August. pp21-24.
LEWIS, D. (2017) Businesses expect to increase investment in diversity. PM Daily. 8 November.
CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.
Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.
This factsheet was last updated by Alan Beazley of The Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion (enei) and by Dr Jill Miller.
The Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion (enei)
The Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion (enei) is the UK's leading employer network covering all aspects of equality and inclusion in the workplace, focused on delivering high quality practical advice, products and services to our members. We seek to encourage best practice to enable organisations and people to prosper by valuing difference in the workplace.
Dr Jill Miller: Diversity and Inclusion Adviser
Jill joined the CIPD in 2008. Her role is a combination of rigorous research and active engagement with policy makers, academics and practitioners to inform projects and shape thinking.
She frequently presents on key people management issues, leads discussions and workshops, and is invited to write for trade press as well as offer comment to national journalists, on radio and TV. She specialises in diversity and inclusion, employee well-being, people management in SMEs and future HR trends.
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