The 6 habits of truly inclusive organisations

15 September 2016 -


You’ve seen the evidence, you understand what can be gained – but acceptance of your diversity programmes is patchy, and progress is slow. That, however, may be about to change, thanks to a clutch of forward-thinking companies and some hard-nosed thinking

Joanna Higgins

“Are you sure you want me?” KPMG partner Vincent Neate was taken aback when, three years ago, someone from the company’s LGBT network, Breathe, asked him to become a ‘straight ally’.

Neate is modest about his involvement – “it’s always nice to be wanted” – but not about its impact. He describes it as “one of the most profound things” he has done in his 25-year career.

“Unless you are a member of the LGBT community, have a disability, face childcare issues or come from an ethnic minority, you simply do not understand how difficult it might be to operate in the modern commercial environment,” he says. “We think we’re at the back end of 30 years of liberalisation, regulatory reform and values slapped on the walls.

“But if you engage, listen and try to understand, you start to realise how far we have to go – and that this is really important.”

Neate works at a company that’s been leading on diversity and inclusion for more than a decade. His concern – and it’s shared by many people involved in diversity and inclusion – is that, away from the spotlight, many medium-sized and smaller organisations are “where we were 15 years ago”.

For all the talk of the ‘business case’ for workplace diversity, in reality progress is patchy.

Part of the problem has been ill-conceived campaigns to hire and incentivise more women, ethnic minorities and gay employees. Managers on the receiving end of these start to see diversity as just another initiative, breeding what The Fawcett Society describes as ‘barrier bosses’, who are more than twice as likely to be against equal opportunities at work than the general population.

Pooja Sachdev, co-author of the book Rewire, even goes so far as to say that “diversity is in crisis”.

But sentiment appears to be shifting again. In many organisations, the focus is moving towards mind-set over metrics.

Business leaders are going beyond the business case, and are focusing instead on the behaviours that make a workplace inclusive. The ultimate prize is better-balanced and more innovative organisations.

Forward-thinking companies are “looking at talent in a different way”, says Sue O’Brien, the new chair of CMI’s Women in Management advisory committee. They tend to promote internal hiring opportunities, and do lots of internal development, “reaching down into the business”.

This latest shift may even be leading to a less purely profit-centric approach to talent management, one whereby ethical aims are made more explicit.

In a recent interview with Fast Company, Danny Guillory, head of global diversity and inclusion at Autodesk, was open about the company’s ethical motivations, warning that, if you’re motivated purely by profit, “you’re stuck”.

So how are the best organisations beating ‘pale, male and stale’ and moving beyond tick box diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives? They tend to share the following set of six common characteristics.

1. They have a story

Inclusive organisations can articulate the purpose and values of their D&I measures in clear, simple terms.

“Don’t start with the aim of attracting diverse talent; start with what you’re trying to do and why,” advises Kate Headley, founder of The Clear Company, which helps organisations develop inclusive best practice.

Organisations should ask themselves questions such as: why would someone from a different race or gender be valuable for new product development? What competencies will be needed? How does hiring someone with autism fit with the organisation’s goals?

Sometimes, the business case alone is compelling, but often it’s the personal stories that are more convincing.

Growing up with a single working mother gave Standard Life director Stephen Ingledew insight into the value of flexible working.

When Catalyst, the lobbying and consultancy group, asked men why they’d got involved in Men Advocating Real Change networks, many claimed they were thinking of their own daughters’ futures.

“What’s your story?” poses Allyson Zimmerman, executive director at Catalyst Europe. “Often, it’s very transactional, but it’s the behaviour and mind-set that will get you there.”

Sachdev recommends storytelling and visual imagery as a way of articulating purpose. She cites HSBC’s ‘Focus on what matters’ poster campaign, which pictures women and disabled employees, and asks viewers to focus on what they can do, not how they look.

“Imagery can open up the possibility in a more powerful way than someone harping on about the business case,” she says.

2. They lead by example

Behaviour among the top brass sends the strongest message about whether a company’s commitment is more than skin deep.

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took time off for paternity leave, it showed he was genuinely behind the social media giant’s family-friendly policies.

Inclusive leaders share four traits, according to Catalyst: they enable individuals to learn and develop; they have humility and are receptive to feedback; they have the courage of their convictions; and they give people accountability.

“Managers will be looking at what leaders do, no matter what’s being said,” says inclusion consultant Charlotte Sweeney. “It’s everyday behaviour that creates culture. So leaders need to link inclusive aims to values, behaviour and KPIs.”

Appointing individual ‘equality champions’ or a steering committee can demonstrate that link, but Sachdev would like to see more value attached to inclusive behaviour, and more training on ‘meta thinking’ – thinking about how to think and make decisions.

For inclusive leadership to filter down, the values have to translate into real practice.

Amir Kabel, of search firm Green Park, recalls how Direct Line (then owned by RBS) wanted its people to ‘bring your whole self to work’. But that didn’t chime among the insurance firm’s employees, who were expected to wear suits every day. So Direct Line did away with its dress code.

“It’s about treating people like adults,” says Kabel. Rigid hierarchies can be a barrier if they perpetuate a sense of ‘us and them’.

Sachdev suggests skip-level lunches, where senior and junior executives sit down informally and get to know each other. Or, she suggests, “shop in a different neighbourhood or attend an LGBT network group. Use reverse mentoring or ‘mutual mentoring’ to try to see things from another person’s perspective. It can be transformational for both.”

Networks, too, should be porous.

Neate recommends bringing in advocates from outside the community for which a network is lobbying. He holds dinners for senior executives at KPMG (mostly middle-aged white men) without any LGBT representation to talk about what Breathe does.

“I completely understand if they don’t see the point of the network in a 21st-century organisation, but let’s have a conversation about it,” he says. Some get involved. Others don’t. “I’m trying to do something to say: ‘it’s not just an LGBT community problem, it’s a leadership problem’.”

3. They develop empathy

Inclusive workplaces thrive on tolerance and respect for ‘the other’. “Sometimes, it helps to think about what it’s like not to be included,” says Zimmerman.

At one workshop, a group of male tech employees were asked to cross the floor if they’d ever felt they couldn’t contribute to conversations about sport. Needless to say, more than one man felt excluded – and relieved to discover they weren’t alone.

“We have this idea of what’s expected in a corporation, and we perpetuate it to fit in,” says Zimmerman. “Those looking from the outside might think, ‘I don’t fit’. But lots of us inside the organisation don’t fit, either.”

Inclusive managers must strike a sometimes tricky balance between valuing what is unique in the individual and making them feel included as part of a team.

Rewards based on team performance can help, but, ultimately, it’s down to managers to get to know their people better.

4. They give people a voice

Whether it’s just encouraging everyone to speak up in meetings, or establishing a network, inclusive organisations give everyone licence and a ‘safe space’ to talk freely.

One financial services firm went so far as to issue a statement to staff that people at all levels can speak out In meetings if they see or hear something that jars with the company’s values.

Other companies have nominated someone as a meeting monitor, simply to notice and report back on the dynamic in the room. Managers increasingly need to act as ‘facilitators’ of conversations around inclusion.

“If you can do only one thing, talk to your team, ask questions and listen,” says Kabel.

People are terrified of saying the wrong thing, so they keep quiet. But this can be invidious, particularly if you’re trying to raise questions about race. Give people permission to get it wrong, and a means of correcting each other.

Sweeney tells the story of the senior executive who used the word ‘handicapped’ in a meeting. “There was an audible intake of breath, but no one called him out on it. So the next day, he raised it himself and urged others to speak up in future.”

5. They use evidence

Inclusive organisations use data both to expose weak spots and monitor progress of talent development groups.

Those in the vanguard publish annual reports on diversity. Staff surveys, 360-degree appraisals, Myers-Briggs type indicators and external information will all give you a clear picture of where you might be weak.

“Stop guessing what works, use evidence, work to find out what’s in the way and don’t make assumptions,” says Headley.

Vodafone analysed three years of data and discovered it was losing a significant number of female employees within a year of their return from maternity leave. So, it rolled out a minimum 16week paid maternity leave policy across the entire global operation, followed by six months at 30 hours a week on full pay.

Slicing existing data a different way can yield surprising results.

Business in the Community found that 18- to 24-year olds have the highest racial bias among the groups it tested, bucking the belief that a younger generation is more naturally inclined to be inclusive.

But you have to make sure you get the right data.

Take disability: a large proportion of the workforce may suffer from an ‘invisible’ disability – stress, back pain or a gradual loss of hearing, for example – but many employees would be reluctant to call their condition a disability, or may not think it qualifies.

“You already have disabled people in your business, whether you can see their disability or not,” says Nasser Siabi of Microlink, which has worked with organisations such as Lloyds Bank on assistive technology and workplace adjustments.

The solution, he suggests, is to destigmatise disability and to reframe interventions as a simple matter of managing talent. “You give graphic designers the right tools to do their job, why should a disabled person be any different?”

GCHQ and SAP have both actively sought to hire people with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. The remarkable German company Auticon hires mainly people on the autism spectrum as software testers. These organisations see their employees’ unique abilities as a positive asset rather than a cost.

6. They recruit for difference

If you want to enrich your organisations with more varied viewpoints, you have to recruit them. But research on bias has made it clear that it’s unwise to go with your gut when hiring. Our tendency to hire in our own image is well documented.

So, what works when it comes to hiring with inclusivity in mind?

Employers have played with a few options. Accountancy firm EY last year dispensed with the need for UCAS points or a minimum 2.1 degree for 2016 candidates, opting instead for its own strengths-based approach.

Others have tried redacted CVs, which block out personal information and (sometimes) where you went to university. But experts are sceptical, pointing out that they still leave clues, and that if there’s an issue that might trigger bias, it’ll only come out later.

The wording of a job advertisement may automatically put off some of the people you’re looking to attract.

“If you ask for ‘flexibility’ or say, ‘we’re a work hard, play hard’ team, you may automatically exclude anyone with caring responsibilities,” says Headley.

The extraordinary linguistic app Textio reads your copy as you write and suggests alternative, more effective (and unbiased) words to use. The language check goes for interviews, too.

Raj Tulsiani, the CEO of Green Park, recalls his horror at hearing the ‘value laden’ language used in front of a senior job candidate from an ethnic minority.

Using a mix of interviewers is one effective way to guard against bias. Incentivising referrals around diversity also sends a message about how much inclusion matters: at Intel, the $4,000 referral fee for successful female, veteran or ethnic minority hires is double the basic referral rate.

Job candidates, whoever they are, will try to conform. If you’re trying to attract difference, make it clear that this is valued. Otherwise, you’re already defeating your own aims.

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