Are Your Development Initiatives Truly Inclusive?

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While 94% of organizations say they have committed to creating programs that advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), most companies have systemic barriers that must be acknowledged and addressed before true inclusion is possible, Brandon Hall Group research shows.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, a team from global professional services firm BTS identifies a significant barrier — confusing assimilation and inclusion — and offers strategies for empowering more individuals from diverse backgrounds to achieve success.

Employers that create programs targeting “diverse talent” to close a gap in skills need to understand that doing so can send a message that those not invited do not need to improve. Programs like this do not dismiss the need to further develop all employees.

By targeting only a select few with a development program, authors Lacee JacobsMac Quartarone and Kate Hemingway write, “it creates a false narrative that only individuals from underrepresented backgrounds need help developing these skills… What’s worse, these kinds of programs can set a single standard for professionalism and therefore promote and lead to assimilation — the opposite of real inclusion.”

In an inclusive work environment, people must feel safe to bring their authentic selves to work. They should not feel that acting from their beliefs or values will impede or threaten their success. 

As the BTS team points out, companies typically state expected professional norms. If the company wants people to feel included and have a sense of belonging, these norms need to be clear, specific, shared at the right time and focused on expectations that are critical to an organization’s mission. 

Examples of positive assimilation will vary depending on the organization and its mission. One example cited by BTS is asking employees to be on time. While cultural norms regarding punctuality vary, not being on time can have severe consequences depending on the nature of the business. 

The authors shared the example of flight crews. When pilots or flight attendants are late, they can delay a flight and cause passengers to miss connections. In another example, being late to work in a hospitality job (like serving or staffing a reception desk) could mean that the person you are replacing has to stay late to cover the work until you arrive and, therefore, be delayed in their own responsibilities, like picking up children from daycare.

The bottom line is that assimilation has value when it is relevant and business-critical — not based on subjective preferences of those in power. When companies are transparent about the need to assimilate and why, it allows employees to choose if this is a place where they want to work.

An example of a common and riskier type of assimilation is dress codes. The choice of apparel is significant for people of various cultures, religions, races and age groups. It is not unusual for someone to be judged by their style, including how they dress and wear their hair. Being aware of biases, stereotypes and a multitude of “isms” is required if companies choose to value diversity and be inclusive. Organizations must have specific expectations for how people dress and be explicit about what is expected and why it is business-critical. 

“Assimilation becomes a huge problem when the expectation falls primarily on the shoulders of those whose backgrounds are underrepresented and these expectations for assimilation have been unclear or unspoken from the beginning,” BTS asserts.

Most employers do not intentionally exclude groups of employees. But, as Brandon Hall Group research reveals every year, the leadership in most organizations does not represent the composition of the workforce (and is not substantially improving). This leads to an inherent lack of understanding, as well as bias, which results in barriers to inclusion.

The BTS authors have broad experience in DEI, ensuring fairness, and limiting adverse impact when hiring talent. Their article recommends several ways organizations should reframe their approach to professional development. One takeaway that is particularly powerful and affirmed by Brandon Hall Group’s research and DEI certification programs, is that getting input and feedback from your target audience as you create development initiatives is critical for success.

Be inclusive about how you improve inclusion. Seek out different viewpoints before taking action. It’s smart to make sure you understand all sides of an issue before moving forward. 

As Jacobs, Quartarone, and Hemingway eloquently state: “To serve marginalized employees, you need to give them a say in these initiatives, design programs that consider their needs and gain their buy-in. At the same time, ensure that your efforts don’t place the burden or responsibility solely on them.”

Critical questions organizations should ask include:

  • How do an organization’s policies and procedures encourage or require assimilation? How can this be changed?
  • What role have potential program participants played in the decision-making process?
  • How did the organization determine the needs of the participants?
  • How will the organization confer with the participants to determine whether the program was successful?
  • How does this program integrate with all aspects and talent and learning needs and gaps?
  • How will this program impact the future of DEI in the organization? 

You can read the BTS article in Harvard Business Review here.

-Claude Werder, Senior VP and Principal HCM Analyst, Brandon Hall Group
-Rachel Cooke, Chief Operating Officer and Principal HCM Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

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