How to Make Inclusion Stick

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion, Global Mindset

Organizational diversity and inclusion efforts are at an all-time high. Why haven’t we made more progress?

On 10 October 2019, Aperian Global’s Singapore team facilitated an engaging discussion with Asia-Pacific regional leaders to address this question, and to share our latest contribution to thought leadership in global inclusion and diversity: Inclusive Leadership: Awareness to Action.

Stephen Burke, APAC Head of People, Partnerships, and Operations for the LEGO Group—our venue sponsor and client—kicked off the session with an insightful keynote. He shared LEGO’s learning years and how some critical business issues were resolved simply by focusing on improving the diversity of thought and ensuring an inclusive workplace.

Acknowledging the business case for inclusion and diversity, and the inclusion efforts that many organizations are undertaking, we asked participants, “What unintended consequences has your organization experienced in response to inclusion efforts?”

We received several honest and thought-provoking responses, such as:

  • “It’s the role of the Department of Human Resources or Diversity & Inclusion, not mine.” 
  • “Leaders don’t role model positive, inclusive behaviors.” 
  • “Inclusion efforts seem to be more event-driven and are not embraced in the daily behavior of employees.”

Dr. Ernest Gundling, Co-Founder of Aperian Global, shared how an aspect of human nature—risk avoidance—can deter inclusion initiatives and efforts. Employees must consider whether to engage in inclusion efforts, such as sharing authentic feedback and when they weigh this against the possible risk of saying something that may be considered inappropriate, for example, they will tend to choose the safer option.

Dr. Gundling went on to explain why psychological safety is a critical foundational piece for implementing organizational levers to support inclusion. Without it, some training efforts may even backfire because they may be perceived as promoting “blaming and shaming.”

Organizational Lever #1: Recruitment

Mui Hwa Ng, Aperian Global Director of Consulting, introduced the first organizational lever to support inclusion: recruitment. She encouraged participants to think beyond standard recruitment practices and consider “stretch strategies,” such as:

  • Balancing cultural fit and diversity
  • Going beyond visible differences
  • Playing Devil’s Advocate; “flipping it” and reconsidering (E.g., “Would we judge a candidate with another background by similar standards?”)
  • Reviewing job needs and competencies required with an eye to the future of the business rather than what has been done traditionally

Michelle Cronin, APAC Diversity & Inclusion Partner at Facebook added, “More organizations are looking for cultural add instead of cultural fit,” which was encouraging.

Participants shared some recruitment best practices that their organizations are leveraging:

  • Equal employment opportunities
  • Special referral bonuses for diverse talents
  • Moderators challenging bias on interview panels
  • Skill-based interviews
  • Extra support in writing unbiased job descriptions, so they appeal to all genders
  • Opening positions up globally

Organizational Lever #2: Executive Engagement

Organizational efforts around diversity and inclusion do not gain momentum without executive engagement, yet many organizations agree that this continues to be one of the toughest pieces of the puzzle to solve. How do we get executives emotionally engaged with inclusion?

Research shows that male CEOs, politicians, and judges that are fathers of daughters care more about gender equality than men without children or with sons only. Dr. Gundling suggested moving beyond the business case and helping executives connect with their personal life experiences can be a more emotionally engaging and sustainable way to propel executive action.

Sharing insights from Inclusive Leadership: Awareness to Action, Dr. Gundling presented the case for crafting diversifying experiences or “Unusual and unexpected events that… violate normality, break cognitive schemas, and promote a thinking style characterized by cognitive flexibility.” The impact of these experiences is “the ability to break old cognitive patterns, overcome functional fixedness, and thus, make novel (creative) associations between concepts.”

Such events, also sometimes referred to as “crucible” experiences, might include going on an international assignment, running a global team, developing a radical new product, integrating an acquisition, or even suffering a personal loss. All of these experiences have the potential to make individuals more open to differences and more flexible in their leadership styles.

Organizational Lever #3: Coaching, Mentoring, and Sponsorship

“A coach talks with you; a mentor talks to you, and a sponsor talks for you.”

Mui Hwa led the group in a review of common benefits as well as pitfalls in coaching, mentoring and sponsorship initiatives. She then focused on several critical career crossroads that employers need to pay attention to, in order to maintain diversity throughout the employee lifecycle.

Our research indicates that three particularly crucial inflection points, or career crossroads, are associated with divergent and more limited career pathways for women and minorities within organizations:

  1. Onboarding
  2. First Promotion
  3. Executive Succession

These three points in the employee lifecycle thus are inclusion cornerstones for employers to offer focused support.

Organizational Lever #4: Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

Dr. Gundling discussed the KPIs commonly used in inclusion efforts, and the need to consider what is being measured and when. He explained the value of diversity targets compared to diversity quotas, which often provoke resentment, backlash, and barriers to achieving intended results.

In discussing inclusion metrics that matter, he asked participants to reflect on the following:

  • Recruitment: Is the company hiring qualified employees from select institutions or industry backgrounds?
  • Representation: Does the demographic profile of employees reflect the general population and the available talent?
  • Workplace Climate: How do the satisfaction rates for different groups of employees compare with each other based on race, gender, age, rank, and nationality?
  • Compensation: Are employees in the same job categories being paid at equal rates regardless of their background?
  • Retention: Is the organization successful in retaining employees of all categories at the same rate, and if not, which groups tend to have higher or lower rates of attrition?
  • Promotion: Are all groups promoted at the same rate at each level of advancement? If not, which groups tend to move ahead or fall behind, and at what point in their careers?
  • Succession: Is there a robust, diverse pipeline of future executives with the right experience to step into top jobs?

Many companies are currently seeking to do a more refined analysis of how different groups are progressing, while also respecting increased sensitivity related to data privacy. For example, companies are asking if are women moving to higher levels across the organization, or only in certain countries or regions? Are there differences between the progress of women from minority versus majority groups?

Organizational Lever #5: Policies and Processes

Policies and processes tend to be the starting point for many inclusion efforts. As such, participants were eager to engage in understanding what comprises the most effective rules and systems in ensuring better inclusion outcomes. 

Dr. Gundling shared several examples of valuable policies:

  • Talent Development: Taskforce participation
  • Workplace Environment: Peer group support; prevention of “onliness”
  • Workforce Policy: Equal pay for equal work 

When requested to highlight policies in their own organizations, participants listed these top 5 measures that they had found to be most effective:

  1. Work-life flexibility
  2. Dedicated inclusion and diversity function
  3. Equal pay for equal work
  4. Coaching and mentoring
  5. Executive sponsorship and role modeling

We moved into a panel discussion with Michelle Cronin, APAC Diversity & Inclusion Partner from Facebook, Dawn Toh, Employee Experience Expert from Circles.Life, and Patricia Lee, Senior Corporate Counsel APAC from LEGO Group. The panelists were candid about the difficulties they had faced, yet left us feeling inspired about the tremendous efforts organizations are making to move the needle on inclusion.

One panelist shared that inclusion efforts connected to personal stories became more compelling. When other employees got a keener sense of the experience of exclusion, they were more likely to engage in inclusive activities. Another panelist shared the need to integrate Inclusion and Diversity and HR, and clearly define responsibilities to ensure that efforts align with tangible business outcomes.

In sharing some of the challenges faced, there was a consensus that numbers drive leaders. The panelists agreed that beyond large-scale training rollouts, inclusion and diversity advocates need to think about how to impact daily activities. These activities can include meeting participation, informed decision-making, asking for and offering feedback, and contributions to business outcomes and development. This way, inclusive behaviors become embedded in employees’ daily practices and are no longer viewed as a separate “nice-to-have” initiative.

The evening ended with a panelist advising that “Change happens one person at a time, one act at a time, one word at a time.” As Aperian Global continues to support global organizations in their inclusion initiatives, we believe this couldn’t hold more truth.