In the latest blog in our series exploring managerial capability, Peter Urwin and Emma Parry reflect on the lessons arising from diversity and inclusion research for management practice.  They consider how the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and explore the value in moving away from an emphasis on particular divisions in the workplace.

The UK has come a long way since the early Equal Opportunities legislation of the 1970s; high-profile cases in the 1980s and 1990s identifying institutionalised discrimination; and the subsequent focus on celebration of diversity and promotion of inclusion. The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements are reminders of how far we still need to travel. We ask here how managers move the dial further on diversity in the workplace and whether research provides clear directions for management practice?

First, it is worth making clear that whilst we often consider issues of diversity as being focused on ‘social category differences’ (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, age and religious belief), diversity can mean much more in academic literatures – educational background, socio-economic group, cultural background etc. Across all these diverse characteristics, the focus is increasingly on inclusion and more recently the idea of belonging, to improve both the experiences and performance of diverse employees.

We have moved from an approach that considered accommodation of ‘difference’ by managers, as best achieved by seeing diversity as something that needs to be “managed”, to the idea that everyone should feel included and welcome in the organisation.  This has moved us from thinking mainly about the policies and practices related to diversity management, to think more about organisational culture and how cultural norms and behaviours impact within organisations.

In recent years we have witnessed a greater focus on ideas of belonging. This has become a bit of a buzz word over the past couple of years, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. Belonging is basically about making everyone – regardless of their individual characteristics – feel as though they belong within the organisation. The idea is that this results in higher levels of satisfaction, employee engagement and therefore also productivity.

Unfortunately, evidence on the efficacy of these new approaches is mostly anecdotal at present so more research is needed to understand if this is actually the case. This is the challenge – we are once again embarking on new approaches (inclusion/belonging) that have little clear evidential basis. Inclusion is clearly something we wish to promote as the right thing to do, but the question is how – there is currently no compelling evidence to support one approach over another. The evidence suggests that diversity can bring benefits (through diversity of thought, background etc.), but also additional challenges in relation to coordination, communication and management– simply put, there is still an investment to be made in fostering inclusion to achieve better outcomes.

Whilst research in this area is quite nascent, practical suggestions include:

  • Creating a culture where individuality is both recognised and valued.
  • Providing high levels of workplace support.
  • Encouraging frequent and open communication, with high levels of employee voice and generally trying to develop trust with employees.
  • Also using policies such as flexible benefits to make sure all employee needs are accounted for, including flexible working and wellness programmes. Recent survey research by Gartner shows that these types of practices can increase perceptions of inclusion by around 38%.

Recent debates on the efficacy or otherwise of unconscious bias training have focused minds further on the question of ‘what works’ and highlighted the potential for adoption of near-universal approaches, that are then questioned. There are always questions over whether short training sessions are able to secure significant impacts across the workplace, no matter what type of learning we consider. Creating a culture and environment that promotes psychological safety so that people feel willing to speak up and call out bias and poor behaviour is essential. Unfortunately we know that this is often not the case in organisations – recent discussions around the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have suggested that typically people do not speak out about even the extremes of poor behaviour. Again, the answer to this is a focus on creating a culture where people are not scared of repercussions or embarrassment if they speak out, ask a question or even make a mistake. This can be about encouraging curiosity, employee voice and even a certain degree of conflict. Again, the important thing is developing trust relationships with employees so they feel empowered.

The pandemic has increased the scale of this challenge. For example, we know that existing challenges have been intensified, with women taking a larger share of domestic responsibilities and more likely to have seen a resulting drop in productivity because of this. Women, young people and BAME groups have suffered particular impacts and Covid- 19 has created new lines of division and difference at work.  We have already seen differences between those who are, and are not, furloughed and the ease with which employees can work at home, as opposed to those who are in front-line jobs.  As we move forward and see an increase in hybrid or remote working in office-based jobs, we are likely to see increased inequalities between those working at home and those in the office.  We know from previous research that those who work remotely are likely to be viewed more negatively in performance appraisals and are less likely to receive opportunities for things like promotion and training. 

Finishing on a provocative note, we might ask whether the emphasis on particular divisions – such as gender, ethnicity, neuro diversity, sexual orientation – is actually divisive? As managers, should we be moving away from talking about particular dimensions of diversity and thinking more about inclusion and belonging as a system of ‘good’ practices that ensure inclusion for all. The practices above that are seen to promote inclusion and belonging – open communication, employee voice, a supportive and inclusive organisational culture –help everyone. Clearly, these dimensions of difference are important for the legal standpoint, but they might not help in relation to large scale inclusion and belonging.

An accompanying podcast to this blog can be found here:

Emma Parry is Professor of Human Resource Management, Head of the Changing World of Work Group and Deputy Director of Research at Cranfield School of Management; and Editor in Chief, International Journal of Human Resource Management.

Peter Urwin is Professor of Applied Economics and Director of the Centre for Employment Research at the Westminster Business School, University of Westminster.