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 workplace diversity and inclusion means, and how an effective strategy can support an organisation’s business objectives. It looks at the rationale for action and outlines steps organisations can take to implement and manage a successful D&I strategy, from communication and training to addressing workplace behaviour and evaluating progress.
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What are diversity and inclusion?
The moral case for building fairer and more inclusive labour markets and workplaces is indisputable: regardless of our identity, background or circumstance, 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.
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. So organisations must ensure their people management approaches do not put any group at a disadvantage. People professionals have a key role to play in role modelling inclusive working improving workplace diversity and inclusion in their organisation - find out more in our new Profession Map.
Diversity and inclusion often go hand in hand but are different from one another. This means that organisations need to consider both in their people management practices and strategies.
Diversity is about recognising difference. It’s acknowledging the benefit of having a range of perspectives in decision-making and the workforce being representative of the organisation’s customers.
Inclusion is where people’s differences are valued and used to enable everyone to thrive at work. An inclusive working environment is one in which everyone feels that they belong without having to conform, that their contribution matters and they are able to perform to their full potential, no matter their background, identity or circumstances. An inclusive workplace has fair policies and practices in place and enables a diverse range of people to work together effectively. Reflect on inclusion practice in your organisation with our inclusion health checker tool.
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.
Even though people have many things in common, they are also different in a variety of ways. The concept of ‘intersectionality’ - that we all have multiple, overlapping identities that impact on our experience - takes into account this principle.
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.
- impact an individual’s wellbeing, performance at work and intention to stay
- adversely affect employment opportunities
- result in failure to recognise skills-based abilities, potential and experience
- result in significant legal costs, compensation and settlements paid to avoid defending expensive discrimination claims.
Differences include visible and non-visible factors, for example, personal characteristics such as background, culture, personality, work-style, accent, language and so on.
This means 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 needs to be consistently fair but also flexible and inclusive to support both individual and business needs.
For example, ‘neurodiversity’ is a growing area of workplace inclusion. It refers to the natural range of differences in human brain function. Among employers, it’s used to describe alternative thinking styles including dyslexia, autism and ADHD. ‘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’, so employers are missing out on other strengths.
Together with Uptimize, we’ve produced Neurodiversity at work, a practical guide for employers to help 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. Listen to our Neurodiversity podcast.
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, 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, including a Code of practice on employment. Whilst not legally binding documents, the codes give important guidance on good practice and failure to follow them may be taken into account by tribunals or courts.
For more information on particular aspects, see our various factsheets on age, disability, harassment and bullying, race, religion, sex discrimination and gender reassignment and sexual orientation discrimination.
Diversity and inclusion are good for people and good for business
Our research Diversity and inclusion at work: facing up to the business case highlights that inequality is still widespread in the workplace, and people professionals are in a unique place to champion the importance of diversity and inclusion. It also finds the evidence base on diversity is complex, with context playing a significant role. Therefore, organisational contexts must support diverse teams for good outcomes.
Good people practice decisions benefit workers, wider society and organisations. Any business case for diversity must consider the potential positive outcomes for individuals, such as impact on well-being, and balance them with business outcomes.
Three of the main business benefits of taking diversity and inclusion seriously are talent, market competitiveness, and corporate reputation.
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 and be valued.
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.
A diverse workforce can help to inform the development of new or enhanced products or services, open 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 to allow their different perspectives to be heard.
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. For example, gender pay gap reporting has brought more transparency and accountability to gender equality at work.
Managing diversity and inclusion
Overcoming prejudice and changing entrenched negative attitudes can be difficult. To progress diversity, organisations should focus on developing inclusive approaches to employment policies and practices, to personal behaviours, and by managing equality and diversity issues in ways that also support business contexts. Ultimately, action should be underpinned by the principles of equal opportunity, fairness and transparency. Organisations must go beyond minimal compliance with the law, ensuring that everyone is valued and supported as an individual.
Our report Diversity and inclusion at work: facing up to the business case reviews the evidence on the touchpoints in the employee lifecycle that may contain barriers to equality. Businesses should examine their own people management practices and diversity data to understand where barriers lie, taking action accordingly.
As well as targeted practices, a coherent strategy is needed to ensure that working practices across the organisation support an inclusive culture which embraces difference. The strategy needs to be supported by organisational values which reflect the importance of diversity and inclusion. Our report Diversity management that works draws on research evidence and professional expertise to make practical recommendations in six key areas of diversity practice and strategy.
Although there’s no legal requirement to have a written diversity policy, it’s a good idea to produce one to demonstrate the organisation takes its legal and moral obligations towards being a diverse employer seriously. It can also encourage employees to treat others equally.
Employers must also consider inclusion to ensure that all employees have a positive experience at work. Employee, line manager and senior leader behaviour are all important, as well as embedding inclusion into policies, practices and organisational culture. Explore the actions people professionals need to take to build inclusion.
- Recognise that a diverse workforce also needs an inclusive environment.
- 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.
- 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.
- In an organisation that operates internationally, be aware that the approach to managing diversity will need to take account local legislation, norms and social issues, and the ways that individual working styles and personal preferences are influenced by national cultures.
- Prioritise collecting and using good quality people data to identify barriers and solutions.
- Train all employees to understand and engage with inclusion in how they do their jobs and work with colleagues.
- 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.
- Describe desirable behaviours to gain positive commitment.
- Make clear that everyone has a personal responsibility to uphold the standards.
- Embed diversity and inclusion in line managers’ roles; they have a key role to play, behaving in an inclusive way and contributing to diversity goals.
- 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 and take action on feedback.
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. Find out what diversity training is most effective in our Diversity management that works report.
- Consider awareness-raising programmes, such as ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, about various aspects of diversity to help people appreciate difference.
- 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 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, using quantitative and qualitative data on both diversity and inclusion, to highlight where barriers exist (for example, via recruitment data) and show the impact of initiatives, making appropriate changes to activities if needed.
- Use employee surveys to evaluate initiatives, to find out if policies are working for everyone, and to provide a platform for improvement.
- 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 the perception of 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 the organisation to keep up-to-date and to share learning.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
ACAS. (2018) Prevent discrimination: support equality. London: ACAS.
BUSINESS DISABILITY FORUM. (2015) Square holes for square pegs: current practice in employment and autism. London: Business Disability Forum.
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.
BADER, A., KEMPER, L. and JINTAE, F. (2019) Who promotes a value-in-diversity perspective? A fuzzy set analysis of executives’ individual and organizational characteristics. Human Resource Management. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 89.
BASKA, M. (2019) Businesses ‘feel free to discriminate’ because equality law is not being enforced. People Management (online). 30 July.
FARAGHER, J. (2017) Beyond bias. People Management (online). 27 April.
PHILLIPS, K.W., DUMAS, T.L. and ROTHBARD, N.P. (2018) Diversity and authenticity. Harvard Business Review. Vol 96, No 2, March-April. pp132-136. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 75.
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 Dr Jill Miller and Melanie Green.
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.
Melanie Green: Research Adviser
Melanie joined the CIPD in 2017, specialising in learning & development and skills research. Prior to the CIPD, Mel worked as an HR practitioner in a technology organisation, working on a variety of learning and development initiatives, and has previously worked as a researcher in an employee engagement and well-being consultancy.
Melanie holds a master’s degree in Occupational Psychology from University of Surrey, where she conducted research into work–life boundary styles and the effect of this on employee well-being and engagement.
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Disability Confident employer
The CIPD is a Disability Confident Leader. We work with the DWP and lead the way in changing attitudes towards disability, and to encourage all employers to provide opportunities to ensure that people with disabilities and those with long-term health conditions are able to fulfil their potential at work. We regularly review our own people practices and approaches to ensure that our workplace is as open, diverse, accessible and inclusive as possible.
Stonewall Global Diversity Champion
The CIPD is a member of Stonewall’s Global Diversity Champions programme, working together to ensure that we are an LGBT+ inclusive employer and membership organisation across our UK and International communities. Our principles – work matters, people matter and professionalism matters – enshrine our belief that good work is safe and inclusive.
Stonewall and the CIPD share the vision that by embedding inclusive values, organisations can drive higher levels of wellbeing, motivation, satisfaction and productivity. Our ambition is to ensure that all of our staff and volunteers feel confident and comfortable in bringing their whole selves to work - because people perform better when they can be themselves.