What the Sewell report misses about diversity in the workplace

The government’s review of racial disparity in the UK sparked fierce criticism. Felix Danbold explains why businesses should look to go beyond its recommendations

Last week’s release of the Sewell report sparked a media firestorm. Criticisms of both the report’s conclusions and how they were reached quickly arose. Despite early headlines to the contrary, the authors have now come out to say what was already apparent to those looking closely at the data – racism is real and we must do more to tackle it.

As the dust settles, many businesses may be asking which, if any, of the report’s recommendations hold merit. Below, I compare three of them with the latest empirical research, revealing that much more can be done than the report suggests.

Don’t defund bias training – improve it

Many may be surprised by the report’s conclusion that frequently implemented diversity training doesn't work. Interestingly, this claim is backed up by a great deal of research. Many efforts to reduce bias are ineffective1 and workshops that focus exclusively on implicit bias risk spreading the notion that prejudice is inevitable and, therefore, excusable2. Worse, many employees have come to resent diversity training as serving little purpose beyond protecting their employer’s liability and public image. In light of this, the Sewell report recommends defunding bias training.

However, ignoring implicit bias does not mean it will go away and, just because a lot of diversity training is ineffective now, doesn’t mean it has to be moving forward3. High-quality training is essential for employees to learn how to detect bias in themselves and others. Even more importantly, training must help employees develop strategies for managing bias when it emerges. So, while diversity training needs major improvement, abandoning it won’t help anyone. In fact, good diversity training is just the start.

Inclusion cannot be overlooked

Inclusion is a buzzword these days, but many are confused about what it means. Inclusion is achieved when employees with all backgrounds feel they are psychologically safe, that they have a real say in things, and that they can be their authentic selves at work4

However, while the Sewell report acknowledges the importance of inclusion, it avoids analysing why members of underrepresented groups may feel excluded at work. Instead, the report merely alludes to one consultancy’s proprietary method of assessing inclusion. For many, this path to inclusion may be inaccessible.

Fortunately, there are steps that employers can take to increase inclusion. As I’ve found in my own research5, one thing that arises when people form together in groups is that they develop a sense of what members of that group are like and should be like. These cognitive ‘prototypes’ become our shorthand for assessing who can succeed in our organisations and who can’t. 

Those who we recognise as having a good ‘fit’ with our existing prototype are welcomed and typically feel a strong sense of inclusion. Those who don’t easily fit the prototype (eg racial minorities in a predominantly white organisation) typically find that their acceptance is conditional on their assimilation to existing norms6

But having to imitate white peers just to feel accepted means that non-white employees are unlikely to feel authentic, and are thus barred from true inclusion. Simultaneously, these conformity pressures undermine the well-documented rewards that we know to come from having meaningful diversity7.

This research suggests that companies should take stock of their ‘prototypes’ and how they may be preventing underrepresented groups from feeling a sense of inclusion. Standardised hiring and evaluation procedures, often implemented to enhance meritocracy, can actually legitimise exclusionary ‘prototypes’ of employees. Organisations can reach greater inclusion today by assessing and addressing who is automatically advantaged and disadvantaged by their existing practices.

Action for diversity can’t wait

In its recommendations on improving fairness in the workplace, the report also calls for more research on what diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) efforts actually work. While this is necessary, such recommendations risk giving companies an excuse to delay action. For many employees, change can’t wait.

Fortunately, the DEI toolkit is large and there are more steps organisations can take to improve things now. For example, the report recommends mentorship programmes for members of underrepresented groups, and employee resource groups where members of underrepresented groups can gather and work collectively to address shared barriers8. Research supports both of these strategies. However, research also shows how other tools, such as diversity training for managers, targeted recruitment of underrepresented groups and specialised diversity task forces, are equally impactful for improving DEI.

One major risk from the Sewell report is that it leaves companies feeling like there is less urgency to eliminate racism from the workplace, and fewer tools available to help them achieve this. The opposite is true. Organisations should look beyond the report’s recommendations and use this moment to help lead the way to a truly fair and just UK.

Felix Danbold is assistant professor in organisations and innovation at UCL School of Management

1. Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2018). Why doesn't diversity training work? The challenge for industry and academia. Anthropology Now, 10(2), 48-55; Paluck, E. L., Porat, R., Clark, C. S., & Green, D. P. (2020). Prejudice reduction: Progress and challenges. Annual Review of Psychology, 72.
2. Daumeyer, N. M., Onyeador, I. N., Brown, X., & Richeson, J. A. (2019). Consequences of attributing discrimination to implicit vs. explicit bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 84, 103812.
3. Carter, E. R., Onyeador, I. N., & Lewis Jr, N. A. (2020). Developing & delivering effective anti-bias training: Challenges & recommendations. Behavioral Science & Policy, 6(1), 57-70; Onyeador, I. N., Hudson, S. K. T., & Lewis Jr, N. A. (2021). Moving beyond implicit bias training: Policy insights for increasing organizational diversity. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8(1), 19-26.
4. Shore, L. M., Cleveland, J. N., & Sanchez, D. (2018). Inclusive workplaces: A review and model. Human Resource Management Review, 28(2), 176-189.
5. Danbold, F., & Bendersky, C. (2020). Balancing professional prototypes increases the valuation of women in male-dominated professions. Organization Science, 31(1), 119-140; Danbold, F., & Huo, Y.J. (in press). Welcome to be Like Us: Expectations of Outgroup Assimilation Shape Dominant Group Resistance to Diversity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
6. Hewlin, P. F. (2003). And the award for best actor goes to…: Facades of conformity in organizational settings. Academy of Management Review, 28(4), 633-642.
7. Galinsky, A. D., Todd, A. R., Homan, A. C., Phillips, K. W., Apfelbaum, E. P., Sasaki, S. J., ... & Maddux, W. W. (2015). Maximizing the gains and minimizing the pains of diversity: A policy perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(6), 742-748.
8. Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2016). Why diversity programs fail. Harvard Business Review, 94(7), 14.