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Six levers for creating, sustaining a more inclusive workplace

Inclusion and Diversity|Talent

By Andrea Walsh and Paul Smithivas | August 13, 2019

To create a more inclusive workplace requires careful change management.

Inclusion and diversity (I&D) is more than just an HR initiative or program. It should be embedded in the fabric of your organization and touch every component of the employee life cycle — from recruitment to retirement. But I&D really comes to life in the daily interactions and behaviors that define what it is like to work for your company.

So how do you create a more inclusive workplace that is sustainable in the long term? Effective change is not easy; it requires clear goals, roadmaps and a carefully considered change management process.

It is generally helpful to put inclusion first when you think about change management for I&D as a very diverse population does not mean you are fully benefiting from the diverse perspectives, skills and abilities of each of your employees. Leading with inclusion says you are providing an environment where all people can contribute, progress and thrive — driving higher rates of employee engagement, retention and better business results.

The six levers of change management applied to I&D

Most change management models provide similar frameworks and levers for implementing sustainable culture change. When it comes to I&D, your framework should aim to shift your culture toward an inclusive work environment, where each of your employees feels safe and appreciated for who they are and the value they bring to your organization.

Your roadmap for achieving change should lie in six key change levers:

  1. Leading
  2. Measuring
  3. Communicating
  4. Involving
  5. Learning
  6. Sustaining

Address each of the changes with appropriate actions, noting the connections between levers and that different levers may be pulled simultaneously and work together.

Let's look at each of the six change levers and how they can be used to embed I&D into your organizational culture.

  1. 01


    Your leaders need to be at the forefront of your I&D efforts. How your leaders react to and speak about I&D will influence the behaviors of other leaders and your employees. If your leaders' commitment to I&D feels genuine, your employees will be more receptive and trusting of your efforts, actions and outcomes. Your employees will also emulate inclusive leadership behaviors and help ensure inclusion is further embedded into your culture.

    Talking about I&D can be challenging — the topic can be laden with sensitivities from both leaders and employees. But leaders are in a position to inspire confidence, create clarity, and foster a sense of community if they speak up and actively embrace I&D. Personal stories often resonate with employees and help them understand the significance of I&D to your leaders and your organization.

    We recently partnered with an organization whose leaders were so concerned about saying the wrong thing about I&D — they said nothing at all. This led employees to be skeptical about the organization's intentions and question whether or not their leaders truly cared about creating a more inclusive culture. With individualized coaching, each leader identified and vocalized their personal commitments to I&D, so they could speak more authentically and with less fear in group meetings and one-on-one settings.

  2. 02


    Know that each organization is on an I&D metrics journey. Knowing where you are now on your journey and where you want to go is important. Metrics can help you track your progress along the way.

    We recommend keeping your perspective broad and selecting a combination of metrics that gives you a full picture of your progress. For example, looking at pay equity metrics alone could lead to potentially one-dimensional conclusions, but when paired with other metrics, such as the number of women in leadership roles or sponsorship and mentoring activity statistics, your organization can see a fuller picture and build a plan with meaningful impact.

    We also recommend avoiding a focus on quotas. It can drive the wrong behaviors — creating a "check the box" approach versus a foundation for sustainable change. For example, if gender hiring quotas are set, hiring managers may feel the need to hire a female, even if she is not the best candidate for the role. Or it may cause hiring managers to avoid considering qualified male applicants. When you focus on making improvements over specified quotas, you remove biases and ensure the right people get the right positions based on merit.

    And it's especially important to use measurement to gauge the inclusiveness of your culture. Many organizations are looking at the dimensions of belonging, opportunity, impartiality across different demographic groups to determine the areas that need attention.

  3. 03


    It is essential for you to communicate, to share your organization's I&D priorities and goals and showcase your commitment and dedication toward driving positive change. If messages feel canned or out of line with your organization's style or values, they will fall flat and easily be forgotten. To resonate, messages must be communicated consistently, authentically and personally.

    We recommend evaluating both your internal and external communications to ensure alignment with your I&D strategy. A good place to start is the language used in job postings. You want to ensure a wide range of people would feel comfortable and excited about the possibility of joining your organization. This includes the positioning of careers and opportunities on your website and social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. Strong continued communication has the power to guide employee actions and foster a sense of understanding and purpose throughout your company.

  4. 04


    Employee involvement is also critical to creating an inclusive environment. Employees who feel part of a community will bring their authentic selves to work and serve as ambassadors and change agents for your organization, thereby spreading an inclusive mindset.

    Employee resource groups can go a long way to helping employees feel like they belong and are supported. Resource groups should not be thought of as affinity groups or exclusive clubs for certain employees. Instead, employee resource groups should focus on allyship. For example, an LGBT+ employee resource group should welcome non-LGBT+ employees and host events that support education of those identifying as allies. Employee resource groups should also be used as platforms to elevate the visibility of high-potential employees.

    Throughout the process, make an effort to hear from different employee groups. Utilize surveys to help assess the success of the desired changes and gauge employee satisfaction and engagement. Letting employees know they are valued and their opinions are appreciated is critical.

  5. 05


    Ensuring all employees have the right skills and tools to adapt to change and reach their full potential is a crucial piece of the change process as well. An emphasis on learning helps build a culture where differences are respected and valued by encouraging employees to learn from one another and the different perspectives and backgrounds that everyone brings to the office.

    Educate your employees about your I&D goals and the pitfalls that exist. Unconscious bias awareness and training has become a key part of many organization's goals and learning strategy. However, training cannot be the sole approach to making your organization more inclusive. Additional actions and change management activities following the training will ensure continued learning and sustainability.

  6. 06


    Sustaining is the lever most often forgotten in change management. It is the difference between a flavor-of-the-month reaction from employees and ensuring the longevity of impact — especially important for I&D.

    While an organization's culture is rooted in behaviors, its foundations are often in more concrete aspects of how an organization operates. Look at all of your programs and policies and make sure they support achieving your I&D goals. Refresh your goals as part of your annual planning cycle and be sure to communicate early and often. Ensuring a framework for future success is in place will help make sure your organization can continue to be inclusive for the long-term.

    Neither change management nor sustainable I&D are easy. Cultures don't change overnight, so it is important to set clear goals, create a roadmap and track progress along the way. Remember, it is not a race, but a journey. It will take time to build I&D into your workplace, one everyday moment at a time.


Head, Willis Towers Watson Chicago’s Talent Line of Business

Paul Smithivas
Managing Director

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