Organisational diversity & inclusion strategies: reflections from a diversity & inclusion specialist

Blog posts

5 Jan 2023

Rob Barkworth, IES Principal Associate

Rob Barkworth

It is the time of year when we traditionally start to reflect on what we have achieved, how we are living our lives and what we want to do differently in 2023. Some will even formalise this by making New Year's resolutions.  I don't want to depress you as you contemplate positive change in your life but a recent study found that a year after making their resolution only 55 per cent of people thought they had been successful. That's even before you consider whether the people making the resolutions had chosen commitments that would be most beneficial to them. Change is hard but it is made harder if our resolutions (or objectives) are not the right ones in the first place or neglect other important issues we need to deal with.

As a Business Psychologist and diversity and inclusion specialist, I have spent the last 20 years helping organisations achieve the goals they have set out in their diversity and inclusion strategies. If I am honest with myself, I have always been more focussed on designing the intervention to help my client succeed rather than questioning how and why the objectives they are aiming for were chosen in the first place. The mistake I made was to assume the strategy was sound. The questions I should have been asking are:

  • How rigorous is the diversity and inclusion strategy development process?
  • Are certain diverse communities being overlooked? 
  • Are strategy objectives the result of reacting to circumstances and serendipity?
  • Is there an orthodoxy of approach where organisations are more concerned with what their competitors are doing to really focus on the issues at hand for their own workforce?

As I reach a new phase in my career these are the questions I have found myself reflecting on more and more. With the dearth of literature in this area it has prompted me to carry out my own research to explore them. My starting point of this work was to review as many diversity and inclusion strategies from FTSE 100 companies as I could access. The rationale being that these organisations, given their size, would have the resource and expertise to do D&I the way it needs to be done - I wanted to see best in class.

The research identified documentation from 53 of these organisations and a combined 215 diversity inclusion objectives were reviewed. The thematic analysis of these objectives revealed a story that had been expected. There were more objectives about gender than any other demographic group. Ethnicity did reach the list of the ten most common themes, but no other demographic group did. This underscored the idea that focus and priority are given to the groups that are easiest to measure.  It seems that organisations still do not have the capability to collect meaningful diversity data from all their employees, or if they do, the amount of data collected isn't sufficient to draw conclusions about micro-minority groups. Perhaps this explains why the promise of intersectionality, to more precisely represent the barriers faced by all people, has not come to fruition. 

The interventions identified ‘to progress strategy objectives 'also showed a huge degree of commonality across the organisations, both reflecting the similarity of objectives but also the lack of creativity in finding solutions. There is safety in deploying the tried. I won't complete the sentence by adding 'and tested' as the other feature of these strategies was the lack of evaluation and the prominence of self-congratulation from the previous strategy cycle.

Of course, it is very easy to criticise from afar, and to improve performance in the diversity and inclusion strategy arena you have to appreciate the demands and pressures organisational Chief Diversity Officers are under. The promise of inclusion is given to all employees who represent many diverse groups. The reasons for people's exclusion are many and varied and in most cases are not well understood. The Chief Diversity Officer has a finite budget, limited people resource and an objective to deliver inclusion for the business. On top of this, the collection of demographic data and the sophistication of analytical approaches adopted both tend to be poor. The result is that the largest constituencies are those that get prioritised. 

To hear more about this research, explore my recommendations and get involved in the debate please join the IES webinar 'Organisational diversity & inclusion strategies: are they fit for purpose?’ on the 19th January.  

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.