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From diversity to inclusion


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By Katharine Esty, PhD

In the last few years, the focus of efforts in companies across the land has shifted from diversity to a focus on inclusion. This sea change has happened without fanfare and almost without notice. In most organizations, the word inclusion has been added to all the company's diversity materials with no explanation. This article is a short account of why this shift has happened and what it means.

Probably the most widely-read article on diversity in organizations was Roosevelt Thomas's "From Affirmative Action to Affirming Diversity," which appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 1990. Diversity, said Thomas, was no longer about complying with a legal mandate but about seeking to create a diverse workforce because it would be beneficial to the organization. Before 1990, most large companies had an Employment Equity and Affirmative Action Officer, usually a lower-level employee who worked in the bowels of the organization compiling statistics about how many employees were in targeted groups, eg, people of color and women.

Diversity, a numbers game

Throughout the 1990's, diversity continued to be about the numbers of different kinds of people in the workforce as a whole and at each level. Diversity staffs tried to increase the number of people of color and women in their organizations. They saw this primarily as a hiring task.

During that decade, the definition of diversity expanded. Diversity came to include many dimensions beyond gender and race: age, class, disability, ethnicity, family situation, religion, and sexual orientation. Companies started to pay attention to their representation of all these groups.

It became clear over the years that it was not enough to focus on hiring alone. It became important to retain "diverse" workers, as well. Some organizations were astonished to learn that after years of effort, they had fewer African Americans than they had earlier. Companies became aware that for the most part the upper ranks of their organizations remained heavily white and predominately male. These were the years when companies offered diversity awareness training and diversity skills training to help their newly diverse employees work well together.

It's the culture

Today, in the 2000's, as organizations try to retain diverse employees in their workforce, companies have started looking at the quality of these employees' experience in the organization. Do employees in all groups and categories feel comfortable and welcomed in the organization? Do they feel included and do they experience the environment as inclusive? To answer these questions, diversity staffs need to assess their environment and identify the barriers to inclusion, whether they are practices, policies, or the informal culture of the organization. Having identified barriers, the job of the diversity staff is to change the company culture and to create an inclusive workplace environment.

Systems and policies

As inclusion becomes the focus of diversity work, the attention switches to the systems, policies and practices of the company. Several systems influence the degree to which the climate is inclusive:

  • Communications
  • Work assignment
  • Training and education
  • Performance management
  • Mentoring
  • Coaching
  • Hiring
  • Career development
  • Flexible work arrangements; and
  • Managers' accountability.
Companies that are known for their inclusive climate do not rely on the goodwill of their managers but work hard so that each organizational system is equitable. Once barriers are identified, they take action to address them. Each system is analyzed to determine the degree to which it provides equitable access and benefits to all employees.

Creating an inclusive environment: a case study

Here is an example of how one company addressed inclusion issues.

A division of an institute in the defense industry had the reputation of not being welcoming to women. For years, they had experienced difficulty in both hiring and retaining female employees at all levels but particularly in the highest ranks of management. For years they clung to the idea that what they needed to do was to hire two or three high-level women. But to their chagrin, as soon as they would hire a new high-level female executive, it seemed one of the other high-level women would resign. At first they explained these recurrent departures in terms of the personalities of the women - "She has family problems," "She is too aggressive," or "She is too timid." Gradually it dawned on them that these resignations were not about the women, they were about the culture and the organizational climate.

This led to a whole new strategy. The director of the division created a Diversity Task Force to suggest and implement changes that would create a more inclusive workplace in order to support the efforts to recruit and retain women. The Task Force was supported with resources and time for its work. Guided by an organizational consultant and working in small action teams, they first conducted a series of focus groups to identify the issues and concerns of women in the division. Then they moved into action, devising a number of changes and short-term projects to address the important issues. As soon as a team implemented a change or completed a project, they took on another.

Here are some of their accomplishments over the first two years:

  • They created a buddy system for all new employees
  • Senior Managers hosted a series of lunches to meet lower-level women engineers and learn about their projects
  • All brochures about the division were revised to include pictures of women
  • They created a website where articles about women in the workplace were posted
  • They developed a special relationship with a women's engineering college, inviting students from that college to come on-site for field trips and setting up summer internships for women undergraduate engineers
  • They instituted networking and professional development events for women
  • Senior managers attended two training programs, "Men and Women Working Together" and "Flexibility."
Two of their learnings about creating an inclusive climate were: 1) It doesn't take huge amounts of money to make significant progress; and 2) Changing an organizational culture is about doing many small things, not one or two big things.

In reality, as this story attests, creating an inclusive environment is about a hundred small changes. As you look at your own organization, ask yourself: What are we doing, in ways large or small, to move from yesterday's diversity to today's need for inclusion?

Katharine Esty, PhD, is the Founder of Ibis Consulting Group, Inc., a diversity consulting firm based in Waltham, MA. She is a NEHRA member as well as a member of the NEHRA "Ask the HR Expert" panel. She can be reached at esty@ibisconsultinggroup.com.

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