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Are Your Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Excluding Your Staff?

DEI efforts employed by organisations can result in alienating employees when they fail to consider the needs and perspectives of all staff.
DEI efforts employed by organisations can result in alienating employees when they fail to consider the needs and perspectives of all staff.
  • Diversity and Inclusion initiatives can end up alienating employees when not implemented correctly
  • Some inclusivity measures brought in to support workers with additional needs can hinder their career progression
  • To be truly inclusive, employers must consider the views and needs of all – not just minorities

Last year PwC published the results of it’s global, cross-industry survey into diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives in the workplace, and the impact these have on the employee experience. The results, in many ways, were hardly surprising.

For example, it was reported that 75% of organisations surveyed stating they either already were, or were planning to, invest in D&I programmes in order to meet customer and employee demand, enhance performance and facilitate innovation.

Like I say, it’s hardly surprising. It’s well known that supporting D&I is not only morally and ethically right, it also has been proven to boost business success so those organisations resisting such change not only risk being seen as rather outdated in terms of their values but are shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to profitability.

But what is meant by “investing” in such initiatives? Another finding the PwC survey shared was that many organisations have struggled to create effective programmes that actually meet the objectives they were created for, suggesting there is not enough action or attention behind such schemes either in the set-up phase or once put in place.

Any business person worth their salt knows that a poorly researched or poorly monitored investment is never going to yield the results they’d hoped for. Simply making a financial commitment is, unsurprisingly, not enough to get results.

And experts at a range of well-established UK-based business schools agree. Not only that, they warn of a significant damage to companies who fail to put enough thought into their D&I plans.

A recent study, conducted by researchers at Durham University Business School, Birmingham Business School, and Leeds University Business School reveals that the diversity and inclusion efforts employed by organisations can result in alienating employees when employers fail to consider the needs and perspectives of all staff.

“We believe that an understanding of the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion strategies needs to be fundamentally informed by considering exactly what ‘inclusion’ means, and how it is felt by employees,” says Professor Jackie Ford of Durham University Business School. “This can only occur by engaging with employees’ understanding of organisational culture and their place within it. Without this consideration, many well-intentioned diversity initiatives may go awry.”

To that end, the researchers conducted a multi-method investigation to explore and understand the engagement and satisfaction levels of staff working across the UK for a major British high-street retailer in regards to diversity and inclusion initiatives.

First they analysed existing research on diversity to identify where gaps in evidence might occur, and used these findings to shape their case study. Interviews were then conducted with the company’s staff across all levels and positions over a three year period. Finally, the researchers shadowed senior members of the company, observing their work and interactions.

The researchers identified five key drivers for inclusion;

  • Visible commitment from the top to an inclusive culture
  • A responsiveness to individual concerns
  • Going beyond protected characteristics
  • Interventions designed to include those traditionally excluded
  • The support of diverse networks

According to Professor Ford, having such drivers in place led to employees considering their work a “second home” and colleagues a “second family”. It also lead to the company establishing a greater commitment to the local communities where stores were located. Researchers observed employees becoming passionate about supporting local charities and those in charge at local stores feeling a sense of duty by offering employment opportunities.

However, it’s not always such a rosy picture.

The researchers also noted that, in efforts to provide support for all, the organisation often unintentionally excluded members of their workforce from certain projects or support networks, which hindered buy-in across the organisation as a whole.

And it doesn’t stop there, in regards to the identifying further barriers to inclusion, Professor Ford and her colleagues highlighted;

  • A perceived lack of accountability for maintaining and developing an inclusive culture
  • Difficulty accessing certain groups
  • Company culture and the need to “fit in” 
  • A lack of inclusive role models
  • Organisational priorities competing with high pressure workloads

“Instead of taking the view that a lack of diversity policies may present barriers to broadening the employee community, our findings suggest that those that make up the “majority” of employees can also impacted by exclusionary practices,” Professor Ford explains. “For example, a lack of ethic minority or female colleagues taking on senior position might not only dissuade such individuals pursuing a career with a company, it might also raise concerns with a wider range of staff who then draw their own conclusions as to the extent their employer is either inclusive or exclusive.”

Concerningly, there was also evidence of inclusion initiatives having an adverse effect on those they were designed to support. Professor Ford notes that testimony provided by employees working with a disability revealed a common frustration that their employers did not seem to give them the same opportunities as their able-bodied colleagues, often passing over them for additional projects or responsibilities, for worry it might cause the employee too much stress or difficulty. Though employer intentions were kind, as a result, disabled staff felt their professional progression was hindered.

So how can organisations get things right? It’s a hard balance to strike between cultivating practices and programmes that can effectively support and encourage underrepresented factions of their workforce, without making staff in general feel like they are not a priority as a result.

The trick, Professor Ford suggests, is to undertake all inclusion efforts with input from the majority of workers, in order to gain a holistic view of the company, understand where such measures might work best and build greater engagement. “The best inclusive cultures are those which can effectively manage the tension between belongingness and uniqueness, and are adapted regularly with input and commitment from every level,” she concludes.

Sounds difficult, but perhaps we’re overcomplicating it? After all, good management isn’t just about making profit, its about the human aspect too – checking in with staff, getting to know the organisation beyond the numbers and acting in everyone’s best interests.

It’s amazing what power a simple conversation may hold.

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