Why the future of diversity and inclusion was yesterday

What can we do to make it now?

The success of the future organisation hinges upon inclusive cultures and it’s already taken too long to get to the point we’re at today. Why has it suddenly become so important and how can organisations ensure they don’t repeat the mistakes of the past by responding inadequately? When I was at Manchester Business School over 13 years ago, the exciting idea of the ‘new diverse and inclusive organisation’ was prevalent in all the management literature. Yet not much changed until recently. Back then, a big driver was ‘globalisation’. Today the driver is necessity. A recent study conducted by PWC showed that 87% of global CEOs are now focused on D&I strategies, an increase from 2015 when it was 67% and an even bigger jump from 2011 when it sat at just 11%.

It’s clear to see that diversity and inclusion now has front and centre stage as a ‘C-Suite’ priority, but without dwelling on the past I can’t help but think, if only organisations had responded over 13 years ago. They would certainly have been prepared for the new challenges and complexities that D&I now brings with multiple facets to consider, from multi-generational factors to neuro-divergence, gender, race and LGBT. So to echo the question asked at a recent seminar I attended on the future of graduate employment, why the sudden spike in D&I interest now?

Well, there are a number of associated key drivers, one of them being the evolution of the organisation’s design and structure. Trends show that organisations will become more focused around solving simple and complex problems which will result in a greater emphasis on forming teams of individuals with specific skills. With this greater emphasis on collaboration and team-work, productivity will become dependent on the ability to leverage diverse skills, strengths, perspectives and personalities. Evidence shows that people who don't feel included are quieter, they don’t share their best ideas or perform as well. Without inclusive cultures organisations are unlikely able to maximise the benefits of this evolving operating model and project-centred organisation.

There are also now social drivers that organisations are facing. D&I is not only seen as worth it because of its business case, but it’s seen as the right and moral thing to do. Not only do employees expect it, but customers do too. In Deloitte’s recent Human Capital Trends report, they show that citizens are looking less and less to political systems to solve critical issues such as income inequality, health and diversity, but more and more towards business leaders.

D&I is key to brand perception, trust, brand loyalty and retaining and engaging all types of talent. To quote the report, “Companies that appear aloof, tone-deaf or disengaged face harsh headlines, negative attention on social media and tough questions from a range of stakeholders”. The internal operations and cultures of organisations are going to come under increased scrutiny by society as a whole including the Government. The recent UK gender pay gap results for example has called for greater transparency and has unearthed some harsh truths for all to see.

So with some of these imperatives, what can organisations do to make up for lost time and bring the past and the future into the present?

1. Be informed but take decisive action

Conversation and dialogue is always a necessary and valuable part of getting to grips with any major change or trend, but the time for talking is coming to an end and an attitude of decisive action needs to be embraced instead. For example, upon finding out from data gathered by his organisation that women were making on average 11% less than men, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce made the decision to increase the salary of all women by 11%…..effective immediately. Whilst I’m not advocating the making of uninformed decisions, I am saying that for over a decade the dialogue has been centred on the business case for D&I or shall I say the ‘why’. With ample evidence of its benefits, it’s time to shift away from the prolonged dialogue and move towards an agile approach and intentional attitude that enables quick decision-making and action.

2. Start immediately with the cultural approach to inclusion

The success of diversity is dependent upon the depth of inclusion, without which all the investment put into diversity will return null and void. In order to build inclusive cultures, organisations need to be honest, open and authentic in their approach to D&I. It’s that age-old saying that you can’t solve a problem until you admit there is one and confront it. Organisations are also missing a trick if they don’t embrace and leverage ideas from D&I groups that already exist in their company as well as employees of all levels. This means creating a culture where although D&I is championed by leadership, everyone owns it and feels empowered and confident enough to get involved and partake. A strong inclusive culture isn’t a perfect one, but one that can openly admit when things have gone wrong, learn and take the necessary steps to keep improving.

3. Be long-term focused and pro-active

When tough times come by way of economic or business crisis, priorities like D&I can fall by the wayside. This is why it’s not enough to make D&I a siloed project, a training day or a random initiative. It must be strategy, woven into the fabric and the vision of the organisation, not only through culture, values and belief systems, but the entire lifecycle of the employee experience, from recruitment and performance management to leadership development and exit management. Organisations must also do this with future needs in mind, not just those of the present. This also means candidates in the leadership pipeline should reflect the vision of where the organisation wants to go.

During my conversations with various female professionals of colour for example, a number of common experiences in the workplace have been shared. One of these includes pressures to conform to the image of the team or department’s perceived ‘star performer.’ A true leader however is able to identify and leverage the differences, similarities and strengths of their people without putting labels on them or limiting the possibilities of what they can achieve. Do the leaders and managers in your organisation have these skills? Indeed, at the heart of driving inclusive cultures is undoubtedly holding leadership and management to account. All leaders and managers should play a part in proactively progressing D&I but organisations must give them the tools to do it.

So why now? Why do you think D&I has now become so important? And how can organisations make sure they respond adequately now so they are prepared for future trends that have not even hit yet?

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