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  • Writer's pictureSavania China

The Problem with Top-down Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

For years, many leaders have joined the fad of appointing diversity and inclusion champions and setting up initiatives to improve diversity and inclusion in their organisations. Data on diversity and inclusion suggests such appointments and initiatives have made little impact. Here is why.

Many diversity champions in big organisations are white. If they are non-white, they are often from similar backgrounds as the white leadership that hires them, from similar private schools, similar top universities, similar well-to-do economic class. And therein lies one of the biggest problems of the current approach to diversity and inclusion. That aside, the top-down nature of diversity and inclusion initiatives in many organisations are not effective because of one rather obvious reason: they are not user-centred.

In fact, claiming that current diversity and inclusion initiatives are not user-centred is not entirely true. One could argue they are user-centred, but perhaps centred on the wrong users. From my experience, most initiatives are devised by the leadership for one reason: to look good. When diversity and inclusion data look bad, it reflects badly on leadership. Sometimes it affects or has potential to affect the bottom line: profits and reputation. So, leadership often initiate programmes or hire experts to fix the problem. In such cases, they – management and leadership – are the users of the diversity and inclusion efforts. Many could argue that they do not seem like the right users.

If management and leadership are not the right users, who are? That is the billion-pound question. And the answer is not people of colour, non-white employees, or employees with characteristics that make them likely to be underrepresented. All employees should be the ‘users’ of the diversity and inclusion efforts. But as users, they should be tiered, with those most underrepresented occupying the top/most important tier, and management and leadership in the bottom tier. The objectives and goals should be set by the top tier users. They should lead the way in shaping a vision of the organisation in which they no longer need to occupy the top tier. All employees in different tiers must sign up to this vision and agree to do everything necessary to achieve the vision. Once that is agreed, the listening tier (leadership) should provide the environment and resources needed to reach the vision.

Such a user-centred approach is likely to yield great and sustainable results. As long as the tiers are self-organised and listened to, diversity and inclusion will become organic and self-sustaining and self-regulating. Just to be clear, the tiers are not and should never be permanent – they are data driven. Whoever the data says is least represented moves to the top tier and assumes the driver’s seat until another group does and so on and so forth. And that’s how you build a sustainable, user-centred Diversity and Inclusion programme that does not rely on a few experts or the interests and attention span of the leadership team.

This is an evolving approach and we will publish more detailed information about the approach and how to iron out some kinks and complexities that may arise from the simple fact that organisations are complex organisms, hence every approach requires to be built within it some flexibility and controls.


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