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HR’s Crucial Role in Making D&I Efforts Stick

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Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) has been rising up the leadership agenda for the past decade —  and never more so than in the extraordinary year of 2020.

It is now a staple of boardroom conversation. Therefore, when leaders use language that can be perceived as hurtful and insensitive, particularly about people from marginalized groups, it causes damage. This has been observed in 2020, with examples from national leaders such as the outgoing President of the United States, as well as those heading up major organizations such as Wells Fargo or the English Football Association.


Perceptions among CEOs and executives that diversity is a cost line item and a lack of business value-add are just some of the reasons well-intended efforts often fail. Executives increasingly engage in the same conversation on diversity and inclusion with the same or similar co-workers. But, because they don’t truly understand the issues, they implement ineffective solutions. The other reason inclusion efforts often fail is because of where the issue sits in the organization.

HR’s Role

D&I usually falls under the remit of human resources, seen as the people and moral compass of the organization. However, HR has its own issues. Often HR is itself an insecure department, not always present at the top table. When diversity and inclusion becomes a subset of an already insecure department, the tendency is for HR to collude with “the business” — at the expense of D&I.

Many HR directors privately view D&I as a cost, a burden, a distraction. So they don’t invest in it. To date, diversity and inclusion has often been given to an employee that is junior, ethnic minority and female. When you give the hardest change work to the person (no matter how brilliant) least empowered to deliver it, we then wonder why things fail.

In other cases, it might be a “Chief People Officer,” or even a “Chief Diversity Officer,” reporting to the CEO. If they have a clear remit, in a people-led organization with an empathetic CEO, they might stand a chance. However, HR is lacking in diversity and lacks experience, authenticity and credibility. It can be eschewed by the business as well as by minorities.

Minority professionals in HR have spoken out. A survey of the #hrsowhite hashtag on Twitter demonstrates what many feel about a largely White, female HR population focusing on (White) female issues often at the expense of race and other diversity characteristics. Levels of understanding of intersectionality remain low.

HR often responds to issues of diversity and inclusion with a technical approach. But a technical approach won’t fix a cultural problem. Technology, for example, can often be a false God, further entrenching systemic patterns of discrimination rather than being “objective” as many practitioners still believe. Take Amazon, which launched a hiring algorithm that turned out to be significantly biased against women.

Framing D&I Differently

When D&I is seen as a cost line item, it already starts with a negative framing. However, at the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, it became seen as an investment in acquiring new markets for niche ticket sales, or by expanding customer service to more people. It was very commercial.

Many professionals see D&I as irrelevant to them because they don’t feel “diverse.” They think D&I is about others, not them. However, D&I is infinite — everyone has a gender, everyone has a race and everyone’s viewpoint can be different. Only when D&I becomes personal, especially to decision makers and budget holders, will it succeed.

Black Lives Matter has contributed to changing the debate. Combined with increased gender awareness, there is now an unprecedented ability to talk about D&I in a way that wasn’t always there before.

How Inclusion Efforts Can Succeed

If a business wanted to make real progress on diversity, it could. If a business has a commercial problem, it applies a commercial solution. As Joan Williams has argued, the response to a sales problem would not be, “to hire someone to lead the company in deep conversations about how fervently the company cares about sales and put on programming for National Celebrate Sales Month. The business would gather the evidence, establish metrics, and keep trying different things until it achieved its sales goals.”

We need to apply the tools we already have in recruitment, promotion and retention to enhance inclusion. This is not soft, this is hard data we are talking about.

If we want 2020 to be the turning point, we need to begin embedding inclusion into all of what we do — from our policies and procedures, to how we use data, to our everyday behaviors. If HR owns this, then as a profession it needs to become more diverse. It needs to build its confidence and sit at the top table, including D&I as a source of strategic contribution rather than a mindset of it being an additional burden. It needs to partner with data experts to monitor the progress of inclusion and belonging as well as representation. It needs to influence governance generally and embed D&I in leadership development, system reviews and pay audits.

At a time when Millennials have become the majority in organizations, at a time when digital transformation is making everything from transparency to remote working possible, there is less and less excuse for inaction on D&I. Properly framed and properly led, D&I can add value to your organization and inclusion efforts can succeed.

About the Author

Stephen Frost Bio Image

Stephen Frost is the CEO and founder of global diversity and inclusion consultancy Frost Included and co-author of new book Building An Inclusive Organisation.

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