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Do you need to re-think your D&I strategy? Independent review concludes employers are wasting thousands on ineffective training

Just before Easter, the independent Inclusion at Work Panel published a report on the state of diversity and inclusion practices in UK workplaces. It's well-researched and evidence-based and something all businesses should read. 

The headlines are that UK employers are spending huge amounts of money on D&I training that's ineffective because it doesn't focus on the specific problems they have in their organisations. Worse still, most employers aren't evaluating whether their training is actually working and therefore don't know if the money they are spending represents good value.

The report argues that a new approach to D&I in the workplace is needed and sets out five recommendations employers should follow to get this right.

1. Identify problems 

Most employers don't collect robust data on their workforce or seek to identify the problems they wish to solve at the outset. They may assume that society-wide inequalities are present and spend money on addressing issues that are inconsequential or absent within their workforce. One in four align their approach to societal events such as the Black Lives Matter protests. It's therefore unsurprising that evidence on the effectiveness of such approaches is mixed and/or inconclusive. 

The report makes what should be an obvious point: you need to collect and learn from your own data before deciding how to resolve the issues you've identified.

2. Focus energy on problems identified

Despite strong evidence to suggest particular interventions are not effective, can be counterproductive (and in some cases, actually unlawful), many employers continue to use them. The report points to a robust growing body of empirical literature that suggests that diversity-related training typically fails to:  

  • have any meaningful or durable improvement in organisational culture and workplace morale
  • increase collaboration or exchange across lines of difference
  • improve hiring, retention or promotion of diverse candidates

The report argues that if organisations are serious about evidence-based D&I practice, there are compelling reasons why they should stop investing heavily in diversity training and opt for interventions which are shown to work. It cites a couple of examples of policy changes to multiple choice tests which, for example, improved the performance of women who were less likely to guess answers than men.  

3. Evaluate what's working

Organisations must gather data and insights before designing and implementing D&I interventions to ensure their D&I strategies are informed, precise, and achieve desired outcomes. They then need to evaluate whether their plans are working and, if they are ineffective or counterproductive, adapt or reverse them. D&I leaders need to be accountable to senior leaders.

This information will help you to evaluate whether your D&I strategies offer good value for money. The report sums that point up rather well: ‘no employer can measure value for money if data and metrics have not been integral to design and implementation, transparent, tracked and compared objectively’. 

4. Widen diversity of thought and experience

The evidence strongly indicates that homogeneity ‘breeds groupthink and stifles creativity and progression'. There's been a growing awareness of this for quite a while and I think that most organisations accept that they need diversity of thought and experience to flourish. 

The report indicates that businesses have made a lot of progress. However, they have tended to focus their attention on sex, race, disability, sexuality, socio-economic disadvantage and, more recently, neurodiversity. 

These initiatives are not wide enough for two reasons:

  • It is not self-evident that focussing on visible characteristics promotes meaningful diversity: An organisation may be proportionately representative of the population, for example, in terms of sex and race. However, if the workforce remains largely socio-economically and geographically homogenous (for example, composed of middle-class graduates from South East England) it is likely to be unrepresentative in life experience and values.
  • Organisations need real diversity of thought which means listening to people whose views may not align with your own or your organisational ethos, not censoring people for speaking out about their concerns, or preventing them from asking legitimate questions about D&I training. 

5. Set clear performance standards 

A good D&I strategy should focus on what your organisation actually needs. UK businesses consistently report (to the CIPD) that their top ‘people priorities’ are recruiting employees with the skills they need (53%) and retaining them (47%). These should not be in conflict with activity to improve diversity and belonging, but the report found that ‘the incentives towards visible, superficial, efforts in pursuit of the latter appear to be reducing focus on ‘the basics’ of good recruitment, clear standards, training, and reward’. It cites two well-known legal cases which exposed how well-intentioned efforts to boost visible diversity can lead to unjustifiably unfair practices that amount to unlawful positive discrimination. 

Current inclusion strategies in organisations focus on company culture, values and mission, providing training and support on inclusion. The less direct link, between improving vocational capabilities and improving inclusion and fair progression, is compelling though less well discussed and understood.

The report argues that having a promotion process that is transparent and supported by high-quality vocational training is much more effective in terms of improving diversity than standalone awareness initiatives or identity networks. 

It recommends that you:

  • Lead from the top. The Board, CEO and senior leaders must take ownership of D&I and ensure that the stated objectives are being met.
  • Be aware of unintended consequences.  Most D&I initiatives are not neutral in design and businesses need to be aware that people may respond in ways they don't anticipate.
  • Understand and apply the law correctly - particularly in respect of the protected characteristic of belief discrimination which many employers have got badly wrong. 

The report is calling on the government to support effective D&I initiatives in the workplace by: 

  • Endorsing a new framework that outlines criteria for employers to evaluate their D&I practices for effectiveness and value for money.
  • Developing a digital tool to help leaders and managers assess the rigor, efficacy, and value for money of various D&I practices.
  • Asking the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to clarify the legal status for employers in relation to D&I practice, focusing on the implications of recent rulings (including those relating to gender critical beliefs) for HR policies and staff networks.

Our thoughts

Employers would be foolish to dismiss this report. It was commissioned by the government but is not political. 

It reveals that despite the staggering amounts of money ploughed into D&I initiatives (the scale of the industry surprised me - the research found that the UK employs almost twice as many D&I workers (per 10,000 employees) as any other country, a lot of training isn't working and/or doesn't represent good value for money.

Value for money is important. Many organisations are tightening their belts and don't have the resources to spend on initiatives that may be worse than useless. Employers already evaluate many aspects of business operations using empirical, quantitative metrics and should approach D&I practice in the same way.  

We can help

We can help you embed legally accurate, non-partisan practices in your organisation. We offer a lawyer lead audit of your workpace and practices and will help you to identify areas to focus on. If you want to know more about this or our wider EDI training please contact Jenny Arrowsmith or Charlotte Rees-John. You can also check out our D&I page and our separate page on diversity and inclusion resources for your business. 

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