When it comes to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I), organisations can move towards building truly inclusive workplaces (and boosting the bottom line along the way), or they can just go through the motions, paying lip service with little benefit. How do you know if you’re doing it right?

Eoin Canty, BIE’s ED&I Lead, sat down with a panel of industry leaders – Kathryn Jacob OBE, CEO at Pearl & DeanSandra M Wallace CBE, Partner at DLA Piper and Sian Jones, CEO at Correla – to explore how organisations today can ensure they’re welcoming, supportive and working to create real inclusion.

Start with honesty

For our panel, creating a workplace that’s truly inclusive starts from a place of honesty. Organisations must acknowledge that improvements can always be made, no matter where they are on their inclusion journey.

“If organisations would ask themselves honestly, they would find that there are invariably still ingrained biases and deep-seated assumptions,” says Sandra Wallace. “It’s true,” agrees Sian Jones. “We all have preconceptions. Humans understand our environment by categorising and classifying things into groups and assigning characteristics to that group – if we didn’t do that then the world around us would quickly overwhelm us - but this otherwise helpful evolutionary trait can work against us and turn into bias, when it comes to creating inclusive workplaces.”

An open and honest evaluation of where you are and where you’re falling short is vital. “And you have to be prepared to act on what you discover and accept the fact you might have got it wrong in the past,” Sian Jones adds. “Otherwise you don't look deeply enough, and you don’t introspect deeply enough.”

Build an open, understanding culture

Accepting that mistakes happen is an important part of moving towards inclusivity. You’re aiming for progress, not perfection. “It’s often three steps forward and two steps back, but that’s okay,” says Sian Jones. “You’re still moving in the right direction.” The key is to keep learning – at an organisational and an individual level.

“These issues are emotive,” Sian Jones continues. “And it can make them almost too hot to engage with. Leaders can feel scared to misstep, and colleagues can be quick to assume poor intent from poor execution, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction.”

That means working to create a culture where people aren’t afraid to speak up, speak out and speak to each other. “It’s then about listening, taking and acting on feedback, and establishing an environment where things can be called out when necessary, but not judged. The time to judge is when organisations don’t act on what they hear” says Sian Jones.

“And it’s true for leadership too,” adds Kathryn Jacob. “Everyone is fallible. We’ve just got to be open and say, ‘maybe we’ll get this wrong, but this is our intention, and this is our management team’s intention, so let’s go on this journey together.’”

Lead from the top

Leadership buy-in is non-negotiable. “If you haven't got the CEO or the executive committee on board with your inclusion agenda, then forget it,” explains Sandra Wallace. “Without them, it’s very difficult for anything to actually permeate the organisation. Instead, what you’ll have are just shallow tick-box exercises.” 

Leaders are role models, and it’s important for them to live up to that and signal their commitment to inclusion through the people they hire, the behaviours they accept and don’t accept (including their own) and whether they’re willing to listen and learn.

In addition to a committed leadership team, it can be beneficial for organisations to employ a dedicated ED&I officer. They can bring best practices, as well as up-to-the-minute research and data, into the room and help push the agenda that much further.

“Our ED&I officer brings a level of challenge into our discussions that’s really helpful,” says Sian Jones. “They hold a mirror up to us and we need that. Plus they help us bring the business case for inclusion to the top table.”

Recognise the true cost

Inclusivity measures often involve a financial outlay, but it’s a price worth paying to avoid a bigger cost down the line.

“I’d hope organisations want to do it because they will have a happier workforce, a better workplace and the profit results that we’ve been seeing from diverse organisations,” says Sandra Wallace. “But fundamentally, the true cost – whether it’s in your talent pipeline, your retention, or in the cases you’re going to get from litigation – actually reveals itself if you don’t move towards inclusivity as an organisation.”

Keep it simple

With the cultural foundations laid and leadership on board, our panel stresses that organisations should keep it simple as they start making progress on creating inclusion in their workplaces.

“Start small,” says Sandra Wallace. “You don’t have to try and boil the ocean in one go. People want to be listened to and they want to know that there are tangible actions you can take. They want to know change is possible.”

Listening is the first and most important step. “The scale of the inclusion agenda can feel overwhelming, but fundamentally, people will tell you what they need,” continues Sandra Wallace.

The panel also encourages organisations to shift their perspective and look for the ways that they might be excluding people. “Sometimes those are easier to spot,” explains Sian Jones. “If you can figure out what’s not working, you can engage with your team to find ways to remove those barriers.”

Get the data

“Don’t make assumptions about ED&I issues,” stresses Sandra Wallace. “Get the data.”

Collecting and understanding diversity and inclusion data allows organisations to zero in on areas for improvement and prioritise decision-making. “Even if what you get is ‘I prefer not to say’, that’s an interesting data item to have as it tells you how comfortable people are about talking about these issues in your company,” says Sian Jones.

Data-gathering is not a one-and-done exercise. “The important thing, once you’ve gathered information, is to make a plan and take action, and then get more information to assess how you’re doing,” says Kathryn Jacob. “Keep getting data points and engaging with what you find. That’s how inclusion moves beyond ticking boxes to creating real change, and your organisation keeps moving forwards.”

Moreover, Kathryn mentioned the All In Census, conducted where almost 20,000 people working in UK advertising and marketing services, across brands, agencies, media owners and tech companies completed a census like survey. The fact that it was, not only anonymous, but also aggregated across other businesses in the industry, made people feel happier to complete it and also be open in their replies. The abundant data provided the most thorough understanding yet of the industry’s make-up and helped form the All In Action plan, a series of nine actions which companies across the industry are urged to implement.

Invest in your talent pipeline

Organisations often underestimate the power of – and the time needed to create – a strong talent pipeline. Evaluate your processes, from recruitment through to internal promotions, to make sure you’ve removed barriers and taken the practical steps necessary to encourage a wide array of applicants and support all your employees.

“It’s about putting in place the foundations that counteract natural bias,” explains Sian Jones. “And making sure that there aren’t so many levers excluding people from being hired and from progressing once they’re on board. And remember to promote people for their passion to the inclusion agenda, as well as their capability to do their job, otherwise you have a lot of capable people and no interest in the topic.”

Go beyond weeks and events

Issue-driven events (International Women’s Day, Black History Month, etc.) can be a good focus for an organisation. However, our panel stresses that organisations should proactively use them to take stock of their initiatives or showcase the meaningful progress that’s been made – not to engage with an issue for the first time.

“When they’re not accompanied by other initiatives or when leaders in the business aren’t talking about inclusion on other days of the year,” says Sandra Wallace, “that’s when things start to feel shallow and one-dimensional.”

“The danger is when they’re just used as tick boxes,” says Kathryn Jacob. “Things on the HR calendar that people show up to and nothing changes. You’ve got to live inclusion in your culture. You’ve got to embed it in your values and you’ve got to drive it from the top.”

Keep engaging in a dialogue

Constant dialogue is key. Discussions within the management team, at all levels of the organisation, and across the industry will help create real inclusion.

“I really feel like we've made progress because of the level of candid conversation that's now coming through the organisation,” says Sian Jones. “It’s not judgmental, but it’s rich, candid and actionable. And that, for me, feels like progress. It's the dialogue that leads to change. Dialogue brings understanding, brings inclusion, brings diversity.”


To take the next positive steps on your inclusion journey, please feel free to reach out to the ED&I team at BIE.

Written by

Eoin Canty

Eoin is a qualified accountant (CIMA) and a Consultant within BIE’s finance team, with a particular focus on delivering executive search assignments.

He works across a range of industries, recruiting CFOs, FDs, Divisional FDs, FP&A Directors, Group Financial Controllers and COOs, for SMEs, international PLCs and private equity/VC backed organisations.

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