Lucy dhr
Lucy Adams
Reading time: 17 minutes
Share this post:

Despite tons of effort and investment, our progress in creating truly inclusive and diverse organisations remains pretty slow. Whilst there are numerous contributory factors, the ineffectiveness of traditional diversity and inclusion approaches should be acknowledged. It would be really healthy, for leaders and HR alike if some fresh ideas were in play. Here are the traditional approaches that we should stop in my opinion and what we should do differently.

Stop equating consistency with fairness

Whilst an inclusive organisation aims to make people feel the same about their experiences at work (eg: feeling valued, having opportunity, feeling trusted, being listened to, etc), they all have very different needs, wants and preferences to get them to these feelings. Our desire to be fair and to avoid accusations of being discriminatory have led us in HR to apply universal and standardised processes. Unfortunately, they often fail to recognise individual needs and wants and can actually result in us being much less inclusive.

Provide choice, customise and personalise

Customising or personalising our approaches to leading, engaging or communicating is essential if we want to people to feel included and smart companies are waking up to the fact that one size definitely doesn’t fit all.

For example, many companies still see the induction or onboarding period as a process to put people through, a vanilla offering of a week of PowerPoint slides. Onboarding tends to be all about conformity; here’s what we expect, here’s how you need to behave, etc. More inclusive companies see it differently and use it as a time to learn about the new hires and find out how they can best be welcomed and deployed. Wipro use the onboarding process to find out more about the new employee’s unique perspectives and strengths. They ask new joiners to take a problem-solving assessment and share the results with the individual and the line manager. It helps line managers to adapt their style in ways that best help the new employee get up to speed and feel more welcomed. This approach led to 33% greater retention in the first six months.

3M customised their career development programmes based on the different motivations of their employees’ main motivation for working at 3M. Using conjoint analysis, a technique used in consumer market research to determine what people value, they identified a number of clusters which they described as people who are:

“In it for my life”; those motivated by flexible work arrangements

“In it to win it”; those motivated by a fast-paced, highly challenging, risk-taking environment

“In it to experience it”; those motivated by developmental stretch assignments

The clusters provide managers with the ability to tailor programs to various employee needs.

Stop providing diversity statistics that have no impact

Every quarter I would furnish my fellow Board members with a detailed diversity data pack. We would anguish over the lack of women in the leadership pipeline or argue about whether the benchmarks for people with disabilities were sufficiently robust. Rarely though did those spreadsheets lead to meaningful action.

The data and insight that can make a difference in D&I tends to go deeper than just the surface numbers. A look at the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ and using a blend of quantitative data, qualitative analysis and specially commissioned insights. For example, when Gap found that it was experiencing stagnating female leadership, it used elements of design thinking, including focus groups, interviews, and collaborative sessions with women employees, to enable current women leaders to better understand how they could support other women coming behind them, clarifying pain and exit points for high-potential women who were considering leaving the company. This led to changes in the way they promoted and retained women leading to a dramatic increase in female leaders. By 2016, women made up 74 percent of Gap Inc.’s workforce and approximately 77 percent of its senior leaders

Stop investing in big D&I programmes

Whilst D&I programmes tend to win the awards, it’s often the small behavioural tweaks that really make the environment more inclusive.

GoDaddy focus their attention on the small things. They describe these as the ‘micro-inequities’ that can prevent an inclusive environment. They recognise that these behaviours are very often unintentional but that they can add up. It’s things like being interrupted in a meeting, or having your idea ignored and but hearing it acknowledged when someone else repeats it. It happens once and you forget about it. It happens several times and you don’t feel as valued. They encouraged leaders and employees to talk about these small behaviours and the negative impact it had on them. The key thing is to keep talking about it – it’s not a programme – it’s lots and lots of conversations – that begin to have an impact.

Stop believing that the business case for D&I will change behaviours

Just telling people that diversity and inclusion is sound business sense and criticising the ones who fail to reach their given targets is unlikely to have much of an impact. Changes in mindsets and behaviours come about through frequent, human interactions that encourage us to understand and empathise with each other’s perspectives. Whilst encouraging conversations has less glamour than a big initiative, this can be hugely powerful.

I love the approach that Freddie Mac took to helping overcome the bias towards extroverts that exists in most organisations. They created something the ‘Genius of Opposites’ that involved introverts inviting one of their extrovert colleagues for open and honest discussions about how different work situations felt to each of them.

Bank of America created an approach called Courageous Conversations – group discussions that encourage employees to have open dialogue on topics that are important to them. The goal of these conversations is to promote inclusion, understanding and positive action by creating awareness of employees’ experiences and perspectives

Stop making it difficult for leaders

If diversity and inclusion was easy, we would be doing it. We’re not failing to make progress due to lack of effort, initiatives or even investment. We’re failing to make progress because working with people who are different to us is less comfortable than surrounding ourselves with people who share our backgrounds, our language, our points of reference, even our hobbies. If our brains have to work harder to be more diverse and inclusive, we have to try and make it easier – because human beings will always do what is easiest.

D&I approaches can benefit hugely from the work of behavioural economics or ‘nudges’; tactics that work with the brain’s natural defaults. For example:


Several companies are using the technique known as ‘reframing’ to help overcome our natural biases. If an idea or belief is presented in a new way or ‘reframed’, then it can help us shift our behaviour in response to it.

This reframing has been used by Arla Foods to set diversity targets in their senior teams. As Tinna Nielsen explains in ‘Inclusion Nudges’, instead of the traditional targets (eg: a minimum of 30% of the senior team should be female), they set upper limit targets for the homogeneity of the team (eg: max of 70% with the same gender). The rationale being that traditional diversity targets trigger unconscious associations amongst decision makers of …

Women = Women’s Issue = Helping Women = Women Instead of the Most Competent

… whereas a homogeneity target generates associations with business performance improvements and moves diversity from being thought about as a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘need to have’.

Stop believing that unconscious bias training is the answer

Just making us more aware of our unconscious biases is sadly not enough to overcome them! We have to be helped by removing the triggers that mean we automatically respond to them. Consulting firm EY have implemented a number of innovations to try and achieve this. For example, their decision to remove all academic and education details and ban CVs from its trainee application process has proved successful in diversifying the company’s workforce. After the policy was introduced, the number of recruits from state schools jumped by 10 percentage points.

They have also implemented something they call ‘PTR’. This involves leaders checking with each other whether their choice to hire someone is ‘a Preference, a Tradition or a Requirement’, ie: ‘did you pick this person because it’s your personal preference (likeness or sameness), or because the person traditionally in this role has always looked and sounded like this or because they meet the requirements for the future?’ EY say this helps people to think beyond their preferences and consider a broader picture.

Stop relying on human beings to change

Instead of trying to get leaders to be less biased, technology offers the potential to take the human being, with all of our biases out of some of our decision making altogether. Johnson & Johnson, for example are using Textio to help increase the diversity of the candidate pool and remove bias. Textio removes gender bias from job descriptions by detecting words that could influence a specific gender to apply, and altering them to non-gendered words.

Unilever partnered with HireVue to initiate mobile-phone based recorded video interviews, and interview-assessment technology. Artificial-intelligence was able to filter up to 80% of the candidate pool, using data points including facial expressions, body language and keywords, ultimately surfacing those candidates that are most likely to be successful at Unilever. By taking unconscious bias out of the equation Unilever increased their diverse hires by 16%.

The traditional approaches to diversity and inclusion have been well-meaning and have involved significant effort from dedicated team members who are passionate about what they do. But it’s time to recognise that for all our effort, business cases, targets and initiatives, our progress has been woefully slow. Finally we are seeing some innovation in an area of HR which has needed some disruption for some time. These new approaches don’t try to bulldoze over human beings’ natural bias but instead acknowledge them without blame and help leaders to be more inclusive by treating them as human beings.

Join the Disruptive HR Club for free and enjoy a taste of our exclusive blogs, podcasts, videos, and live events

Recent Posts


Lessons from a scandal: Should bonuses be paid for ‘just doing the right thing’?

The scandal of the Post Office, where managers are being incentivised to help with the public inquiry, begs the question - should we ever pay bonuses just 'for doing the right thing'?


Health and Wellbeing: Less Zoom Yoga, More Trust

We should question whether our healthy snacks and instructive posters are addressing the real barriers to feeling well. Should HR be the caring parent and provide the right kinds of food, exhortations and education? Or should we look to reduce the things that create the stress in the first place?


How to help your leaders be more curious

Being curious is good for us and our organisations, but some of us do it less than others. This blog explores how we can help leaders to show more curiosity.