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Workplace Inclusion: What’s Going Wrong?

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Well intentioned initiatives die from a thousand papercuts due to internal politics and conflicts of interest.

The business benefits of workplace inclusion and workforce diversity have been well explored and described. Many companies – global, international, and domestic – have been working on this for years, and in some cases for decades.

And yet there’s still a problem.

The reasons initiatives are not delivering intended outcomes have also been well explored and described.

And yet there’s still a problem.

So what’s going on? Why do corporate equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives fail?

One that just isn’t being openly discussed?

The elephant in the room is much more insidious: conflicts of interest.

It’s the shameful corporate reality that never gets discussed and underlies the lack of progress.

I can relate to this personally. I decided to come out as gay after serving for 17 years with an employer. Having risen to a senior executive position leading a large business unit, I had decided I needed to live my authentic self at work. I had to decide whether I was willing to accept the potential consequences of coming out in the forms of at-work discrimination, career stagnation, maybe even having to leave the company.

I sought assurances that the company’s statements on inclusion and diversity, were authentic and not just “box ticking”. With other LGBT+ colleagues we formed the first LGBT+ employee resource group in the company anywhere in the world. We participated in the Stonewall UK workplace equality index, and worked across diversity groups to bring about change. I then began to see, experience, and, regrettably, became personally complicit, in these conflicts of interest. I saw first-hand the conflict between the actions needed to bring about change, and the personal impacts that they can have. It creates a pernicious pressure on employees of all levels that the employer allowed to persist, and whether consciously or not exploits.

This is the first in a six-part series of posts that explores this more:

  1. Part 1: What’s Going Wrong? 
  2. Part 2: Why Is It Failing?
  3. Part 3: Overlooked Obstacles
  4. Part 4: Conflict of Interest (Corporate)
  5. Part 5: Conflict of Interest (Personal)
  6. Part 6: Recommended Actions

The benefits of equity, workplace inclusion and workforce diversity

The business benefits of equity, workplace inclusion and workforce diversity have been well described by academics, journals, and management consultancies. [1]

By “equity” we typically mean that individuals are treated according to their specific circumstances or needs. That can be compared with “equality” which typically entails treating everyone equally (and by implication that’s not responsive to individual needs. Inclusion is about the culture that allows everyone to be themselves and be proactively included. Diversity is about the wide range of ways that we are all different, unique, human beings.

Legislators and citizens also have increasing expectations that companies will behave ethically and responsibly in society. 

PwC identifies that diversity is the solution, not a problem to solve. MIT Sloan Management argues that moving the needle requires nothing less than the full commitment of the CEO.

Some companies see these as integral to their business success, others (appear to) view them as acts of benign generosity.

The issues to address in companies and society are complex and deeply embedded so the interventions are often wide-ranging.

Many publications exist to guide executives and HR professionals on the initiatives they should lead to address the issues.

Initiatives can be connected with business strategy and governance using a framework such as making equality strategic.  Another useful approach is to consider the employee life cycle perspective.

What’s going wrong?

So why do corporate equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives fail? The problem is that even with so much material available on the types of interventions and initiatives that can be deployed, and countless experts and consultancies operating in this field, it isn’t working.

This is evidenced by the many articles on the failure to make progress, for example Google Diversity Report Shows Little Progress For Women And People Of Color and Facebook has a diversity problem. That’s despite those same companies making positive statements about what they’re doing.

In outcome terms it is seen in lower than expected representation of certain groups in the workplace. That could be too few women and/or people of color in leadership positions. Or a gender pay gap due to fewer women in senior positions. Or those with non-visible differences not being out in the workplace. For example, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people, or those with non-visible disabilities.

The very intent of the interventions is not being realized; workforces are not more diverse, and workplaces are not more inclusive.

In the next part of this series we’ll explore why it’s going wrong.

Catch up on all of the other parts that make up this blog series below:

About Steven

Steven has extensive experience in strategic executive leadership having led large business units at Fujitsu. Steven has had full and operational delivery responsibility for $1bn annual revenue business, including sales / growth, of full-service range (consultancy and change programmes, to operational IT services) to multiple clients. Leading business through changes in strategic direction, crisis management, transformational turnarounds especially those delivering business critical services to clients such as Public Sector / National Government. Steven engages well with C-suite executives and senior stakeholders, including in previous roles with UK Government Cabinet Ministers.


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