Ask the experts: what is diversity and inclusion?

This guest blog has been written by Fiona Triller, Progamme Director at Creating Inclusive Cultures, a forum for businesses who want to create thriving workplaces for all, working together and learning from each other.

Over the last 30 years organisations have shifted their thinking around the workplace culture from one which is fair and equal [equality] to one which is more diverse and inclusive. But what is diversity? And what does inclusive or inclusion mean in a workplace context?

The most accepted definition of diversity is usually:

'Diversity is about every single person, everyone is unique and bring their different perspectives, formed by life experiences, culture, education and many other things to the workplace.'

Inclusion is usually described as:

About creating an environment where everyone can be themselves, feel they can contribute their views and feel that those views will be valued.

A quote often used to help explain diversity and inclusion comes from Verna Myers, author and D&I professional based in the US:

'Diversity is about being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.' A colleague in the D&I field added to this saying: ‘Inclusion means being free to dance as you would like.' 

Surrounding these definitions there is a legal framework which protects characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, age, race, disability and which protects pay, maternity and paternity leave and the right to work flexibly. 

Getting Started 

Diversity and inclusion is not new – my first experience of D&I was in 1989! Nevertheless there are still deep divides in existence around pay, promotion, representation at all levels, social mobility, lack of role models and lack of diversity at board level. Some would say that it is not important – however there is a substantial amount of research from sources such as McKinsey, Catalyst, Harvard Business School and many others which suggest that a diverse workforce is both more creative and committed. And a workplace that is both diverse and inclusive can expect employees who will be more productive and engaged. So what can organisations do to really embed the D&I agenda into the business? How do you get started? 

Here are some principles adopted by organisations who have been working on the agenda for some time:

  • Treat your D&I strategy as you would any other change programme – have clear outcomes and timescales in place, ensure the strategy is reviewed regularly, assess any potential risks, find a senior level change champion
  • Assess your current position and engage in conversations with employees. What is the issue or issues you want to change through a D&I strategy? What do you know about the current picture? What anecdotal data do you have about what it is really like to work in your organisation? What do your customers tell you?
  • Review ALL your people policies: recruitment; performance management; training and development; bonus structure; rewards; employee support; wellbeing; flexible working; maternity and paternity; and exit programmes 
  • Be clear about the message you share with the rest of the business about why you are working on D&I – is it a business or a moral case? Can you explain to leaders and managers ‘what’s in it for them’?
  • Middle managers hold the keys to success – communicate, communicate and communicate with middle managers!
  • Good communication is critical – develop an appropriate communications plan with your organisation’s communications team 
  • Learn from others – join an appropriate network – don’t be afraid to ask others what hasn’t worked as well as what does work!
  • Be honest with your organisation – share data and progress – even when it is not good news
  • Consider creating employee networks – check with your employees what they want!

One size does not fit all – every organisational culture is different – involve your employees and customers as well as other stakeholders when creating your strategy and regularly communicate progress.

D&I Programmes and Initiatives

Identify what is needed and what will have most impact through conversations with employees. I was once asked to develop a ‘women only’ network – conversations with women in the organisation soon made it clear this was not what was wanted. Women wanted to engage in cross functional/cross organisational mentoring so this is what was delivered. Changing the culture will not happen if you engage in activity that employees see as a waste of time and resource.

Over the last few years many organisations have invested in specific diversity and inclusion training – particularly unconscious bias training. This is important but works best when part of a wider development programme such as leadership and management programmes, and also needs to be embedded into training on recruitment and performance management.

Inclusive leadership training can pay dividends – helping senior leaders and middle managers understand their role in changing the culture will take time and resource.

Mentoring is another D&I favourite – and has been shown to be helpful. Consider mentoring across organisations and reverse mentoring - where a junior member of staff mentors a senior colleague.
No one organisation would claim to have ‘cracked’ D&I – it’s a journey and one that can feel endless!

However help can be found through a number of organisations such as Creating Inclusive Cultures – support from peers and experts will help you find the path most appropriate for your organisation.

Wherever you are on your &I journey – good luck!

A good introduction to Diversity and Inclusion can be found in ‘Inclusive Leadership’ the definitive guide to developing an impactful diversity and inclusion strategy -By Charlotte Sweeney OBE and Fleur Bothwick OBE. Published by Pearson and available on Amazon and most bookshops.

For more information on Creating Inclusive Culture email Fiona Triller, Programme Director Creating Inclusive