ArticleFebruary 28, 2024by included0

Has HR fallen out of love with Diversity & Inclusion?

Has HR fallen out of love with Diversity & Inclusion?

In January 2005, I led the team at Stonewall that launched the first Workplace Equality Index. We came up with the idea to frame diversity and inclusion (D&I) as an aspirational positive (rather than simply a cost of doing business), and benchmark companies on their progress.

However, we were anxious. Out of our “Top 100 companies in the UK for gay talent”, seven of them had decided to remain anonymous. Of the best 100 companies in the UK for gay people, seven weren’t out.

Our anxiety was rooted in the fact that the love affair between HR and D&I had yet to begin in earnest. It was more strangers in the night. “D&I” remained activist and on the outside. HR remained corporate, closely guarding their insider position. They were estranged from each other.

However, over the course of 2005, our anxiety began to diminish. Our judgement and framing were proving correct, as the initial winner of the Index, the British Council, received nothing but positive press coverage. Other organisations got in touch. HR Directors and CEOs started asking questions internally about why their organisation wasn’t in the index. In one case, they were, but were one of the seven.

D&I and HR started to flirt with each other. In the second Index, January 2006, we were oversubscribed, and companies were fighting to get in. What a difference a year makes.

Essentially, organisations were moving from viewing D&I as “Diversity 101” and a compliance imperative, to “Diversity 2.0”, a marketing and stakeholder management imperative.

There was rapid growth of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme from 2005-2007, making it the largest good-practice programme of its type in the world. This rapid growth was mirrored internally, as HR started hiring D&I people. More investment and time was deployed. The relationship had begun in earnest.

Fast forward to 2020, and, at the height of the pandemic, a Black man was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. By this time, many organisations had started to progress to the third stage of Included’s maturity model, “Inclusion 3.0”. Besides the obvious moral outrage displayed by millions of people worldwide, the reaction to George Floyd’s death was again mirrored internally. D&I was being embedded in processes and systems like recruitment, performance management, customer service and procurement.

Rather than viewing D&I as a threat, exposing potential gaps, HRDs were starting to view it as a source of strategic engagement with internal clients. Networks groups, CEOs, HRDs often led the charge for very personal reasons, as well as sound commercial ones. Corporate Instagram pages turned into black squares, statements were put out and the C-suite was receiving D&I training.

In many cases, this Inclusion 3.0 embedding has continued. We’ve worked with pharmaceutical companies who now have Directors of Clinical Trial Diversity to improve drug efficacy. We’ve helped tech companies whose engineers now factor inclusion into their coding and programming to reduce algorithm bias. HR was finally seeing D&I as useful, even as a way of expanding their influence and impact around the organisation.

However, in many cases, this corporate activity hasn’t endured. That’s because D&I remained 101 or 2.0 and the marriage with HR didn’t endure. It reverted to diversity weeks, speakers and a cost line item that could be challenged in the annual budget round. Of those Black Instagram squares, we now find a majority that can’t point to sufficient systemic change to justify their previous stance. In many cases, organisations have regressed or fallen away from “embedding inclusion” to a Diversity 101 or 2.0 position. Maybe it was never truly in love in the first place?

The fourth stage in our maturity model is “Inclusion 4.0”, where systems and processes are redesigned for better performance and equity. Think of the recent failures at the CBI, Metropolitan Police, charities and financial institutions. When systems break down, they need to be rebuilt – but also redesigned, in order to avoid a similar outcome as before.

There’s no point instituting a talent management programme for Black women if they are going to be promoted into a predominantly white male environment that doesn’t include them. There’s no point in holding diversity weeks that only speak to the existing choir

Like any good marriage, you have to work at it. What got you here, really won’t get you where you need to be in the future. Compliance, marketing, embedding inclusion are all important, but it’s only by adding value to the way business is done, by coming up with new ideas and by creating positive change that both HR and D&I will truly blossom.

Like any successful relationship, it needs to be framed the right way and set up for success in the first place. That means being able to be honest about past mistakes, have empathy for where each other is coming from, and build new value together.

In some cases, HR has indeed fallen out of love with inclusion, but that’s probably because the relationship was always misconstrued in the first place. It was a relationship built on necessity, a Diversity 101 marriage of convenience. Or it was all about Diversity 2.0 – showy, and a Facebook feed of distorted reality. Only when D&I becomes truly embedded (Inclusion 3.0) or even a source of new ideas (Inclusion 4.0), and both sides see the added value they get from each other, does love truly blossom.


Stephen Frost
CEO, Included


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