Lucy Adams
March 3, 2019
Reading time: 23 minutes
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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 role of HR and our diversity and inclusion approaches definitely need to take some responsibility. In the first part of this blog I looked at why these approaches aren’t working. What I want to do in this one is share some of the great stuff that is happening – and that is actually making a difference.

Same, Same but Different

Anyone who’s spent any time in South East Asia will know this refrain, common among shopkeepers who are trying to sell you something. But it can also apply to Inclusion in organisations. I believe that whilst an inclusive organisation aims to make people feel the same about their experiences at work (eg: being valued, having opportunity, being 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.

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.

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) needed to transition a workforce of 11,000 to a new technology platform. Instead of the typical mandatory training programmes, they instead focused on what would motivate an employee to learn the new system. Through “voice of the learner” interviews, ICE developed several typical personas and used these insights to design a differentiated approach, creating a range of options to engage with the content. Curious agents had the opportunity to volunteer for “beta testing” and experiment with the application before release—which then offered a peer support network for later adopters, making it easy for less-enthusiastic users to access on the spot support. By understanding the range of employee preferences, ICE was able to offer a range of experiences and help employees in ways that met their needs.

Go Deeper with Data

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. They look at the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ and use 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

GoDaddy used data in a couple of different ways. Firstly, whilst their pay equality numbers looked pretty good at first glance, they examined the ‘why’ behind them and identified that many women were hitting the top of their pay grade but not progressing any further into the most senior levels of management. What looked like a good statistic was actually a problem. To work out why this was they commissioned some analysis of years of performance and talent reviews. What became apparent was that the language used to describe similar attributes in men and women was very different. ‘Dynamic’ qualities in male managers became ‘tendency to be aggressive’ in their female counterparts. Furthermore, leaders tended to assess males on the basis of their skills and females on their ‘style’ of leadership. They realised that what they had to tackle was the mindset and perception of the assessing leaders rather than pay equality.

It’s the small things

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

Back to GoDaddy – they focused their attention on the small things too. 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.

Amplitude, an analytics company also focused on small things to help shift the culture. For example, they reviewed their internal and external presentations to include more female stylised icons. They changed the timing of internal social events to make them more convenient for employees with small children. They changed the names of their meeting rooms to ensure more female representation – and they even provided t-shirts that were designed for women as well as the standard male shaped ones! Will these tiny changes make an organisation more diverse? No. Will they help to erode the ‘maleness’ of many workplaces? Yes.

Focus on the conversation

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 D&I programme, 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

Making it easier

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’ (p165), 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’.

Another example from ‘Inclusion Nudges’ of this reframing is the approach taken at Nestle (p145) to assessments around promotion-readiness. Instead of the traditional approach where line managers have to identify who is ready for a promotion (based on their inherent bias), they reframe it and say ‘Everyone is ready now’. Line managers then have to argue ‘why not’ if they don’t believe they are in fact ready. Nestle said this led to more objective evaluations and more transparency around potential bias which can then be discussed and challenged.

Make it harder to be biased

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.

Use Tech to eliminate bias

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.

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