How do you solve a problem called Inclusion? (2)

How do you solve a problem called Inclusion? (2)

I find conversations about inclusion fascinating. For the many repeat patterns I see.

Seeing inclusion as a bounded problem: One of the cardinal errors I see is in the framing of inclusion as a “bounded” issue. As I have written before, it really is not. If we define the problem wrong, or let’s be charitable – narrowly, we will solve the wrong problem and no matter what we do the solution is not going to fix the problem.

Seeing inclusion as a broad problem: This is the flip version of the previous one. Some leaders seem to want to solve the inclusion problem, not their own organisation’s inclusion problem. One could argue this is another way of framing the problem poorly or wrongly. Unfortunately this way of thinking is aided and abetted by a protected-characteristics centred thinking on inclusion, which, as I have written before, is insufficient and reductive, and can lead to pointless “solutions”.

What works for a global company’s English headquarters may be elegant and effective but may be utterly unsuitable for that very company’s satellite operations in California, leave alone be suitable for a small company in Singapore. There are variations in employment laws, dominant practices, norms. In other words, horses for courses.

Making inclusion an HR problem: This one especially interests me. If you ask people what HR does in a company, they will roll their eyes and talk about how HR ghosts candidates, delays offers during hiring, acts as a bulwark thwarting any access to hiring managers etc but then also add that HR does payroll, admonishes people about policy breaches, protects the company’s leadership and boards against employee complaints against things such as harassment, and is a general pain in the posterior.

Here however is a good listing of some things HR does. And there is no mention of culture or diversity or inclusion.

For good reason.

Inclusion and diversity are not HR problems; they are strategic leadership and culture issues.

Yet when a company wants to do inclusion it is HR folks that are expected to reach out to “D&I consultants” asking them to do a “workshop”. Why all these quotation marks? Because well, if you define the problem wrong, you solve the problem wrong and with all the wrong tools and approaches.

Trying to solve inclusion through hiring: Fixing hiring seems to be a popular tool. It is indeed a reasonable fix even though often technology becomes the fall guy here. But is it suitable for your context?

Are you a rapidly growing start-up that went from 50 people in year 1 to 1500 in year 3? Then hiring is a fix for you to use seriously. As I have written in another post, it is better to do it right the first time and a clean slate of a start-up provides that opportunity, except sometimes it is so hard that nobody thinks of inclusion until it becomes a glaring problem of monoculture or something that investors start making noises about.

UK data between January 2021 and January 2022 suggests that in the surveyed companies in public and private sectors, both for- and non- profit, the range of employee turnover was 8.7% to 14.4%. Stated another way, this means that approximately 85% to 92% of employees remained with their employers.

As a business leader, what percentage of your workforce turns over every year that you can reasonably expect to hire your way to fixing your workforce diversity challenge where it can be called equitable if not representative?

Asking this question quickly shows hiring won’t fix the inclusion challenge. The real need is cultural change. In the workforce that is already here. This is the tougher fix.

Inclusion as a cultural change challenge: Cultural change or transformation is hard to execute, leave alone measure and report on in a way that can demonstrate that your organisation truly means to build diversity and inclusion. There is no ready checklist, such as protected characteristics, that can provide comfort that may be you are doing it right.

To change anything in any direction, first there needs to be a baseline, a diagnosis if you will. This sets the stage for your organisation’s specific cultural change problem in respect of inclusion. Then the real work begins. What values do you say you believe in? What values do you demonstrate through behaviours as revealed preferences? What beliefs drive those behaviours? What behaviours are rewarded, punished, ignored, tolerated? The change desired needs executive commitment, sponsorship, communication, incentive alignment and reinforcement. Lather, rinse, repeat.


Inclusion is a board level challenge, not an “HR problem”. It needs recognition that solving for inclusion does not need a hammer in the form of a “D&I workshop”, but a full toolkit with the requisite skills to use those skills.

Without a strategic approach to inclusion, organisations may still be where they are today, lamenting how their monocultures are killing their strategic advantages, and worse, being shunned by the next generation of talent that wants their employers to be ethical, caring towards employee wellbeing, and diverse and inclusive.

(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University or Harmony Energy Income Trust, where I serve as a non-exec director, and chair various committees at the time of writing.)

Related reads:

  1. People and the perfect storm, an earlier post on this blog
  2. People, Pandemic, and Places of Work, an earlier post on this blog
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