We were recently interviewed by Alexia Saleem at Rullion Solutions on how to implement a successful Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. We shared 11 Key Steps and 10 Top Tips to really ensure this is embedded into the company business plan and is seen as critical to the business and not just another initiative.
Diversity and inclusion in the workplace are increasingly accepted as fundamental business tools in today’s employment market. This is because more and more organisations recognise that their potential to achieve better business results is increased when people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives are included in the decision-making. However, many organisations still struggle with how to effectively implement a robust diversity and inclusion agenda and embed it into their Business Plan. Failure to get such a strategy right, results in failure to fulfil the maximum potential of a diverse and inclusive workforce. Diversity and inclusion expert and keynote speaker, Charlotte Sweeney, shares her views on how to implement a successful diversity and inclusion strategy, why such a strategy is important, and what challenges to look out for.
Given increasing globalisation, organisations that want to retain their competitiveness recognise that employing people with very diverse backgrounds and perspectives bolsters their ability to stay ahead.
No organisation can today escape the global context of their operations [from a business planning perspective], said Sweeney.
This is because regardless of company size, the majority of today’s organisations operate in a global context, she said.
“The more that we gain knowledge from the internet, access websites, the more that we work via conference calls, video conferencing, there’s more and more opportunity for even the smallest of organisations to be global,” she said.
For this reason it is imperative that businesses really understand the global context of their operations, she added.
To do that effectively, you have to be diverse and inclusive, she pointed out.
Sweeney, who successfully led an independent review of the Women on Boards Executive Search Voluntary Code on behalf of The Secretary of State Vince Cable and Lord Davies and created the Lord Mayor’s Power of Diversity Programme, is the Founder & Director of Charlotte Sweeney Associates (CSA).
CSA offers expert advice across all aspects required to develop and deliver an effective change management strategy incorporating diversity, inclusion, wellbeing and employee engagement. Its services have been engaged by public, private and third sector organisations including the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, the City of London, the Royal Navy, Leeds City Council, the City of Copenhagen, The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, National Grid, Coutts, Shell and many others.
Today’s workforce profile
Diversity and inclusion is important because the profile of today’s workforce is changing, including their needs and lifestyles, said Sweeney.
Fifty-one per cent of the population are women, one in seven workers have elder care responsibilities, half of UK fathers say they spend too much time at work and not enough time at home with their families which is having a detrimental impact on their family life and quality of life, and in five years time a third of the workforce will be over the age of 50, she said.
“The people who will be walking through your doors as employees are significantly changing, their needs are changing, their lifestyles are changing. But, as businesses, who we hire and who we promote, isn’t changing as much as it should to reflect this.”
Organisations that desire a good gender or ethnic mix, for example, are fundamentally saying they want people who think differently, said Sweeney.
People from different backgrounds generally think very differently. Two people might be doing exactly the same job but will probably do it very differently because they have a different upbringing, background and experience to each other. They would come at the job very, very differently, said Sweeney.
“And that’s what is so great about having different views in organisations. If you’ve got lots of different ideas and they feel they can be included and share those ideas you will come to a better solution than if lots of people, who think exactly the same, work together. You also reduce the potential of ‘group think’ which has been a criticism of a number of large companies.”
Inclusion is key
However, diversity is only effective if it goes hand in hand with inclusion.
Sweeney said many organisations know that it is important to have a very diverse group of people in the workplace. They also know that the greater diversity within an organisation, the more potential for innovation and collaboration.
“But what’s really important is inclusion,” she said.
“If you have a lot of different people in your company, great! However, if they don’t feel like they can put their hand up and say what they think, if they don’t feel like they can contribute to discussions and share their point of view, or think that their ideas will be dismissed, then there’s actually no point in having that diversity there.”
Sweeney said a lot of companies have gone down the route of diversity and inclusion tick boxing, which as a standalone exercise is ineffective and unsustainable. Instead, it is important for all employees, irrespective of culture, race, gender, age, educational background, religion, sexual orientation etc, to feel they have a voice; to really feel included, she said.
“The key [to promoting diversity of thought] is that people need to feel included so they can share their perspectives in a trusting and inclusive organisation.”
The more inclusive an organisation, the more engaged and loyal its workforce, Sweeney added.
So how to go about implementing a diversity and inclusion plan? The following 11 steps are not an exhaustive list but simply a guideline about what organisations should be thinking about if they want to implement such a plan.
Step 1: Review your business plan
Before implementing a strategy to help improve the effectiveness of organisations by building on the benefits of inclusion and diversity, it is really important to first understand what organisations are trying to achieve in their business plans, said Sweeney.
“I work with companies where I review their business plan, we look at their aspiration for the business, we look at what they want to deliver in the next five years, and then we look at how diversity, inclusion, wellbeing etc could really support them in delivering that,” said Sweeney, who has created and delivered large scale Diversity, Inclusion & Wellbeing strategies for global organisations, most recently spending over three years as International Head of Diversity & Inclusion for Nomura International PLC.
As well as understanding what organisations are trying to achieve in their business plan, it is also important to recognise that no two diversity and inclusion strategies are alike.
“I think any organisation serious about this should recognise that they cannot take another company’s strategy or activity and put it into their organisation thinking it’s going to work for them,” said Sweeney.
Unfortunately, a lot of companies insist on doing just that and then wonder why the strategy isn’t working, she said.
From a fact finding basis it is acceptable to ask other companies what they are doing on diversity and inclusion, said Sweeney. However, replicating an organisation’s diversity and inclusion business plan is never going to work; even if that organisation is in the same sector and has a similar company structure.
“[Instead] they have to think about what their business is there to deliver over the next five years. They need to think about the culture of their business. They need to think about the sort of people they have in their business. And they need to think about what success looks like to them. And that’s different for every single company.”She added: “You wouldn’t see an organisation take another company’s business plan. For example, you wouldn’t see Apple replicating Micosoft’s business plan. Even though they’re in the same industry and you could argue delivering a similar product / service, they’re very different companies. They employ very different people. They’ve got very different cultures. They just wouldn’t do it. It’s exactly the same for this.”
Step 2: What are your people saying?
Having reviewed an organisation’s business plan, the next step involves really finding out what is going on inside a company. To achieve this you need to ask a lot of questions, said Sweeney.
“It is important to speak to the senior leadership and to ask for their thoughts on where they want to be as a business, what they think their culture looks and feels like, and what are the things they really like or really loathe in their company,” she said.
However, don’t just stop at the senior leadership.
It is equally important to speak to people at mid manager level and beyond for a more ‘realistic’ picture of the situation, stressed Sweeney.
This is because, although the leadership might be committed to change, those words are not always seen as converted into action by others in the organisation.
“They will hear their senior leader at a presentation saying ‘diversity and inclusion will be embedded into our DNA, as part of our life’s blood. We will be recruiting and hiring the best talent’. But then they’ll see them recruiting or promoting a certain type of person or people who they don’t believe are the best or right people for the role. They’ll wonder why pay increases are being given to a certain type of person.”
The reality is therefore markedly different to the leadership’s rhetoric, which is why we are seeing less diversity and inclusion than we would expect given the level of focus, said Sweeney.
“We’d see organisations that are far more effective because people feel included and engaged, and we’d be seeing issues such as the equal pay gap reducing [if the leadership’s words and actions were aligned],” she pointed out.
Step 3: How does it feel to work in your organisation?
Organisations need to find out what peoples’ experiences are like working for their business.
“They need to find out what it’s like for people working there and if the experiences differ depending on background or other factors. The challenge here is not to make it too difficult. It’s about trying to find out how people feel in their organisations,” said Sweeney.
This can be achieved through employee opinion surveys, focus groups, chance conversations in the corridor, or even listening to what people are saying in the cafeteria. The idea is to glean information about what is on your employees’ minds, said Sweeney.
“For example, using an employee opinion survey we can measure how included different groups of people feel. To do this you can ask whether they feel they can share their ideas and views in the workplace and if they will be listened to,” she said.
The responses can then be split across lots of different groups including gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc, Sweeney said.
“Generally that can tell you how different groups of people feel. It can also tell you the gap between how the majority group feels and how everybody else feels.”
It is that gap that is important because it gives a company its inclusion gap, she said.
“So are you an organisation that makes people feel included, can they speak up, can they share their ideas, can they be as productive as they want to be in the workplace?”
Step 4: What systems have you currently got in place?
Once an organisation gets an idea of what it feels like for different people to work there, then they can start to think about what they are doing in their business that could either help or hinder this.
“For example, do they have a recruitment process that says regardless of role everybody has to have a degree? Because that changes the talent pool that you can actually recruit into your company.”
This is why when starting out on a diversity and inclusion strategy it is vital to look at the systems and processes currently in place and where are your ‘hot spots’, said Sweeney.
Some decision-makers are probably not even aware that their current hiring or promotions processes lack diversity or that their decision processes are unintentionally full of assumptions and biases playing out, she said. It is often only when these decision-makers’ conversations are played back to them that they are made more aware of what is going on, she added.
“If you don’t feel that you have got enough representation of women, look at the systems you’ve already got in your business. So how do you bring people in? How do you hire people into the organisation? What is the process that you go through to decide who’s been performing well and who hasn’t? What’s the process to decide who gets promoted and who doesn’t? Effectively break all those systems down, look at what’s happening, look at how people are making decisions and then feed that back.”
Sweeney said it is often helpful to have awareness sessions with hiring managers about what an organisation is looking for. You then work through the processes involved in the recruitment, retention and promotion of staff and examine any biases in those processes, she said.
Step 5: Putting a plan in place and measuring its success
Having pinpointed a company’s hot spots, a large number of organisations put initiatives in place to try and rectify an existing situation. For instance, creating a women’s network to try and boost the number of women in an organisation.
Instead, organisations should be putting quantifiable interventions in place that can be measured and modified and measured again, said Sweeney.
“Organisations need to identify an issue, measure it and say this is what we look like and feel like now. After that they need to put a proper change management system around that issue. After putting in place a number of measures, they need to measure the issue again. If necessary, do a few more interventions and then measure it again. This is so that they can really see the sustainable progress that is being made.”
The challenge is then converting the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion strategies to bottom line results due to the difficulty in defining them in terms of intervention A equals result B, said Sweeney.
“But you can measure a lot of different aspects to see how you’re generally progressing,” she said.
For example, at a previous organisation, Sweeney said they had struggled to encourage women to return to work post maternity.
“I said to the senior leaders that even if we just improved to the industry average we could reduce our recruitment bill by over £1 million a year. Because we’d be retaining the women after maternity leave and we wouldn’t have to go out and hire somebody... It took us a while to figure out how we could measure that but we did and it was hugely successful.”
Step 6: Be clear about your diversity and inclusion needs
Organisations also need to focus more on inclusive recruitment so that they are bringing the best and the right people into organisations regardless of who they are.
Organisations that use recruitment companies to supply their workforce should be clear about their business aspirations and challenge recruitment companies about what they are looking for; tell them they want new diverse slates of candidates and new diverse long lists. Recruitment organisations that fail to deliver, should be supported to improve or be replaced, she said.
“You can say you would like them to look from the widest talent pool and that you expect some diversity in there. If you look at the demographics of the UK you would argue that you should find diversity in [those slates of candidates and long lists].”
Step 7: Keep your talent pool wide
To help keep those slates of candidates diverse, ensure you are not inadvertently narrowing your talent pool, said Sweeney.
For example, a finance director does not necessarily need to have been a finance director in the past. Such a stipulation shrinks the market and potentially produces the same type of candidate, predominantly a white male. Instead, look at accountancy firms such as KMPG or EY, said Sweeney.
“[Accountancy firms] have got a lot of people who know a lot about finance who could be finance directors, but who have never been a finance director previously. By stipulating [that the candidate] has to have been a finance director in the past you shrink the market significantly,” she said.
“Be clearer on what skills you want rather than the type of person you want. For example, you could say I want somebody that is great at analysing data, can understand and navigate a spreadsheet, can actually create our strategy around finance, can be our finance control person effectively, rather than saying I want someone who has been a finance director before.”
Step 8: Managing a diverse workforce
Sweeney said very few people talk about the risk of increased conflict within very diverse groups. The conflict stems from the fact that people think very differently.
“That can be a challenge for some managers and leaders who are not particularly great at dealing with conflict or challenge,” she said.
This is why groups that look like each other and have the same experiences as each other can initially be far more harmonious than groups where the people are very different and very diverse.
Sweeney said it was up to the skill of the leaders and managers of diverse groups to help them work together effectively, which could at times prove challenging.
But once those teams are working really well together and sharing ideas to create a better, more innovative solution, then the result is absolutely fantastic and one that a more homogenous group might never have come up with, she said.
“Having a diverse group looking at business issues creates a better solution because its members have different ways of thinking about how to approach problems. This is because they have that different background and life experiences, which they can bring to the table to create a great solution,” said Sweeney.
Step 9: Diversity and inclusion working in tandem
It is one thing to be inclusive, but it’s another to be diverse. The two have to work together to be effective.
A lot of organisations have been hugely inclusive because they have been made up of the same type of people. Others are very diverse, but the people don’t feel included. That’s why diversity and inclusion are so important and have to work hand in hand.
“You can have a diverse company but you’re not going to get the benefits out of it unless people feel included because they won’t share their views. And you can be an inclusive company, because everybody thinks it’s a great place to work, but you won’t get the benefits of that because you haven’t got the diversity of thought, and different thinking coming through and different perspectives.”
Step 10: Remember an elephant is eaten one bite at a time
Sweeney said a lot of organisations start out with great intentions, a lot of commitment and announce them with a huge fanfare but then, six to nine months down the line they realise there is a lot to do, they haven’t thought it through properly, and so abandon the project.
“So it’s being very clear on what are the two or three things we can do this year, that will have an impact, and then how can we build on that in the future years," she said.
“Be clear this is not a 12 month plan. It has to become a way of life in organisations. Take bite sized chunks and build on those. It has to involve continuous improvement so that as an organisation you are constantly looking at what’s going on in the business and thinking about how to constantly improve it.”
Step 11: Involve everyone
People also wrongly assume that such plans need to be driven solely by the chief executive or senior leadership, said Sweeney, who herself holds a number of Non-Executive Director positions including at the Mid Yorkshire NHS Trust.
“Yes their engagement and commitment is important, just as it is for any change. What people don’t focus on enough is that everybody can influence this. Everybody at every single level can have an impact on this. So for every manager it’s how you treat all your team members. For everybody in an organisation it’s how you treat people that you pass in the corridor or work with on projects. It’s making sure that you give that air space to everybody that you are working with so that they can share their views and they feel included. And it’s thinking about every piece of work you’re doing and how does this fit in. Or what are the things that we need to consider from a diversity and inclusion point of view within this project? So everybody has a positive impact.”
Top Tips: 10 ways to implement a successful Diversity and Inclusion Strategy as part of your Business Plan
- Do not replicate another company’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. It is not a one-size fits all activity and won’t work. Instead, customise your own strategy according to your organisation’s individual profile and requirements.
- Do not tick box. Instead, ensure everyone feels they are treated like an individual and have a voice irrespective of culture, race, gender, age, educational background, sexual orientation etc.
- Examine what experience your employees have working for your organisation.
- Ask yourself what does your organisation’s workforce look like? What are your demographic groups? How might this change in the future?
- Is your recruitment process securing the widest, most diverse reach or are you limiting the talent pool by asking for a certain type of person to join your organisation?
- Change starts from the grassroots therefore start from the hiring process and introduce diversity interventions there. Be clearer on what the skills that you want to hire, rather than what type of person you want.
- Ensure that you are thinking about diversity and inclusion from every aspect of your employee life cycle, how this enhances your client offerings, how you engage with your stakeholders and much wider.
- Identify what areas you want to focus on and create very targeted measures to address those key issues by putting a proper change management system in place. Avoid implementing a lot of ‘initiatives’ as these will be ineffective at achieving long-term change.
- Be clear that any Diversity and Inclusion Plan is not a 12 month activity. This has to become a way of life in organisations. There has to be continuous improvement so that you are constantly looking at what is going on in the business and how to constantly improve it.
- Do not only rely on C-suite commitment to drive your Diversity and Inclusion agenda forward. Everybody, at every single level, can influence change and have a positive impact on it.
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