Why are we still getting inclusion wrong?

Despite diversity's rightful place high on the workplace agenda, few organisations are delivering on their promises to be genuinely inclusive. Little wonder their employees are in revolt

Why are we still getting inclusion wrong?

The concept of diversity and inclusion should be a joyous celebration of human experience. Yet it garners the most attention when it is the source of conflict or embarrassment. Two recent examples illustrate this perfectly. First, there was the Twitter storm that engulfed Citizens Advice this summer, after a piece of training guidance it issued was described as “horribly racist”. In materials the charity has since withdrawn was a slide titled ‘Barriers we find in BAME communities’, which perpetuated several outdated stereotypes.

The #charitysowhite hashtag began trending and there was an outpouring of experiences of discrimination and racism, suggesting that this was far from a one-off incident. “If your organisation preaches diversity and inclusion, yet all managers and trustees are white, have a look in the mirror and have an honest word with yourself about what’s really going on,” said one tweeter.

Then there was Cadbury’s misguided attempt to promote racial harmony through the release of a new brand of chocolate. Unity, a Dairy Milk bar redesigned to include four shades of chocolate from white to dark via milk and blended, was only available in India – where it was released on the country’s independence day – but its impact was felt across the world, where people accused the company of simplifying racism and patronising its audience. 

Both incidents were problematic and unfortunate, but arguably they obscure a bigger truth that may explain why the encouraging progress on diversity made in recent years has not led to greater inclusion in the eyes of experts and HR professionals: organisations simply aren’t fundamentally committed to the concept.

It’s up to all companies to look at whether the diversity and inclusion promises they make to employees are reflected in their day-to-day experiences at work. The metrics alone show just what a mixed picture UK business paints in this area. Employers are undoubtedly making progress on gender representation and equal pay, for example, thanks to reporting legislation and pressure from investors. But data from executive search company Green Park last year found that only 52 per cent of the FTSE 100 has non-white board or executive committee members. 

In fact, the Sutton Trust’s report into those who hold positions of power in the UK shows that privately educated people still make up the majority of judges, 43 per cent of news media and 34 per cent of chief executives of PR firms – despite only 7 per cent of the population attending an independent school. 

Little wonder inclusion isn’t happening for most. “The first failure organisations make is they want a silver bullet,” says Frank Douglas, CEO and founder of consulting firm Caerus. “So they cut and paste initiatives from other companies. It might be employee resource networks, mentoring, emerging leader programmes, returnships, unconscious bias training, flexible working, enhanced maternity leave. Then they sit and wait for the results to roll in.” The problem is, their leadership culture and HR processes are unique to them. “They’re not looking internally at what works for their company, their leadership behaviours, their practices and the unintended consequences of those practices.” 

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