How to implement an effective diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy
Diversity by box-ticking, rather than building a long-term plan for change, is sure to backfire
This article originally appeared in issue 33 of IT Pro 20/20, available here. To sign up to receive each new issue in your inbox, click here
It’s widely understood that workplaces benefit hugely from having a diverse workforce. A range of different approaches to everyday work is healthy and positive, and being open to the widest workforce possible can help employers face up to the skills shortage, which the technology sector is only too familiar with.
But formulating and implementing a diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy is not a simple matter that takes just a few weeks. This should be an ongoing lived experience – embedded deep in the core of an organisation – to be truly effective. While there are plenty of shortcuts available, any organisation that doesn’t invest the energy, time and resources needed will encounter pitfalls that will backfire.
Building a workforce of all the talents
Understanding the complexity of diversity can be an important first step, and firms may find it most beneficial to seek external expertise to help them process this. Doing so means any policy, the strategies through which it will be implemented, and the ongoing embedding of D&I in everyday working practices is both broad and deep.
“Organisations need to construct policies with an intersectional lens,” says the head of growth at leadership training programme provider Circl, Meenal Patel, tells IT Pro.
“People from underrepresented backgrounds often fall into multiple categories of diversity. A policy which focuses on gender one year, race another, and neurodivergence another will fail before it even begins. We cannot segment diversity in this way. The best diversity policies put intersectionality at the heart of their approach.”
Getting started on D&I
Becoming a more inclusive workplace can manifest as a decision to transform an entire workplace culture. Taking standardised D&I policies “off the shelf” – rather than working from the ground up to develop policies which fit with specific needs – is far from ideal.
“Before starting a D&I strategy, companies must assess where the gaps are in their business,” says Chelsea Slater, CEO and co-founder of InnovateHer. Armed with this information, organisations can start to work to increase diversity in a meaningful way.
For Holly Foxcroft, head of neurodiversity research in cyber consulting at Stott and May, the biggest mistake firms make is to implement change policy without training employees or giving guidance on the change. “This means employees may not understand why the change is needed, and may not understand the policy and its practices, which can lead to resistance,” she adds.
Sitting alongside this is the question of where responsibility for D&I is located. Slater sees a lot of companies give this work to people who are not in a D&I role, but are passionate and vocal about it. “This is the first “no” when looking at D&I in the workplace,” she adds. “When this happens, colleagues get stressed out as they are doubling their workload almost immediately. D&I is a full-time role.”
The better approach, says Slater, is to either employ someone into this role internally or get a consultant or company to help create a strategy and then implement it.
Strategies must be embedded, not siloed
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, having recruited diverse candidates, the job is done. In fact, supporting every team member should be embedded in the culture.
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“Organisations need to take a fresh look at how they deploy career development,” Patel says. “Equality is giving diverse candidates an opportunity in the organisation. Equity is giving them the resources to succeed once you have hired them.”
Another trap is placing too much emphasis on metrics. Setting a target of changing the makeup of the workforce, by having a statistical goal can be helpful, but it shouldn’t be seen as the only, or even the main, prize.
“The one thing organisations should avoid is to overly focus on the numbers and metrics,” says Bev White, CEO of Nash Squared. She is very clear on this point, adding: “Numbers are very important about telling you where you are, but the engine of diversity is in culture change. You can’t change the temperature by tapping a thermometer, and you can’t change diversity simply by measuring it.”
Bringing everyone on the D&I journey
Vitally, implementing a D&I strategy is a matter for the whole organisation. It’s about cultural change, and this isn’t achieved overnight.
Slater offers sage words, telling IT Pro that implementing a diversity strategy means undergoing a huge organisational culture shift “because you’ve recognised that you are not diverse, or people aren’t being treated fairly within the workplace”.
“Culture can take a long time to change, and you must be willing to have tough conversations with colleagues, and face pushback from colleagues, to create a culture that supports inclusive behaviours,” she concludes.
Finally, it’s centrally important to avoid a culture of blame – making those who have not understood D&I in the past feel somehow that they have done wrong. That way lies the road to building resentment and losing support for the changes that need to happen. When D&I is seen as a lived experience across the whole organisation, everyone is involved and the positives are accentuated.
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