If you’ve made DEI HR’s job, you’re doing it wrong.
I’m seeing too few organisations seizing opportunities to address equity and inclusion beyond the basic representation question. Thousands of tiny decisions made within your organisation affect equity and inclusion for your staff, your partners, your users, and over longer timescales, for your industry and society. No single person or team can be responsible for making sure those decisions help rather than harm.
Equity and inclusion is everyone’s job.
Every profession and function in your organisation has a role to play, different levers available for them to pull to support, or actively deliver, more equitable and inclusive outcomes.
But if people believe DEI is another team’s job, they won’t ask the probing questions they need to have that impact. They likely won’t think to take on the challenge of driving change from within their division — and they definitely won’t set themselves metrics to track and improve their performance in doing so.
So what questions should folks who care be asking themselves? Here are just some, at the tip of the iceberg. If people find them useful, I can do a bit of a deeper dive at a later date.
Policy and strategy: Are you actively soliciting feedback from the groups you’re not reaching or underserving? Are you modelling policy impact on these groups in order to anticipate and prevent harm? Do you know who you are unwittingly excluding from your products and services, and the associated opportunity costs? Have you considered possible unintended consequences — unexpected users and uses, abuse of your product by people with bad intentions, potential winners and losers?
Research, design and development: Which users are front of mind for your service and product design? By centering and optimising for those users, are you adding significant extra friction for other groups using your products and services, or failing to meet their needs entirely?
For example — when we design a site and its IA around those users with good English, we may not notice we’ve made a hidden choice to make use of our services harder for those with poor literacy or little basic English. Optimising for those with good English means that we’re adding to the burden of those least able to understand our IA, we’re asking them to navigate through content that isn’t for them to find the Easy Read and translated content we might have dotted around the site for them. Deciding not to create an easy, coherent journey for these users is a design decision like any other — with costs and benefits that need to be properly deliberated, and mitigating actions that can be taken if you’re aware.
Are you researching and testing with excluded or underserved groups? What channels and methods are you using for participant recruitment in research — and so who will you not reach? Are you sure you’re not over-indexing on research with users already using your service, or those you know really quite well? Are you designing for those without strong English? Designing for those who need accessible formats, assistive tech? Are your digital services consistently passing accessibility audits and publishing accessibility statements? Are you building usability and accessibility testing into standards to be met by suppliers of digital and non-digital products and services? Does your approach to continuous improvement include accessibility? Are you designing journeys that work for people with low literacy, or poor digital access/capability? Should you be designing with particular groups, not just for them?
Data, analysis and insight: Are you collecting data on those populations you know least about — and have you considered the impact of these missing datasets on assumptions within policy, analysis and decision-making? Are you differentiating sufficiently in your analyses to draw out meaningful differences between groups? Do you have coverage or sample bias in your research samples? Are you alert to the power dynamics around data privacy, surveillance and data sharing — and the impact this might have on data availability and quality? Might you even be putting some people in harm’s way through collecting and using their data? What biases might you building into your algorithms as a result of uninclusive or biased ML training datasets? Are you capturing the MI you need to know who you’re serving well, and who you’re serving poorly or perhaps not at all? After all, what gets measured gets managed, so we need to measure what matters, not just what’s easiest to measure.
Legal, commercial, procurement and finance: It might seem less obvious, but corporate decisions made by these functions can also impact equity and inclusion. Who is benefiting from investment through partnerships, or commissioned research programmes? If you offer it, who is getting PhD funding and who isn’t? How might you use your location strategy and estates decisions to help address inequity and disadvantage? In your market engagement, who are you engaging to ensure you’re nurturing a more diverse supply chain? Do you know the demographics of your supply chain and its leadership — do you have or need a supplier diversity programme? Are your funding and payment terms helping or hindering the long-term sustainability of voluntary and community sector orgs, or small businesses? Are legal documents — like terms and conditions — easy enough for users to understand and make genuinely informed decisions?
Leadership and management: Do senior leaders have a strong sense of the right questions to ask to properly consider the E&I implications of decisions recommended to them? Are they championing E&I — and then walking the talk in their prioritisation decisions? If the board is receiving regular updates about the organisation’s performance on equity and inclusion, what decisions are they taking in response? What is changing as a result? Are leaders seen as active bystanders, challenging bigotry and other unacceptable and disrespectful behaviour when they see it?
Are leaders willing to acknowledge and navigate the power dynamic between themselves and their employees? Do they facilitate challenging discussions, where staff speak openly without fear of blame or retribution? Do senior leaders take time to build relationships with staff, colleagues and clients with different backgrounds to their own? Do they mentor or sponsor high potential individuals from under-represented groups?
Governance, transparency and reporting: If you’re in a public sector organisation, are your Equalities Impact Assessments being produced and reviewed for adequacy of coverage and quality? And are they revisited and updated as you observe the impact of policy decisions? Or — gulp — are you making policy decisions without due consideration of your Public Sector Equalities Duty?
Are you building trust and inviting scrutiny and challenge by sharing your thinking, your decisions and your data in relation to these groups? Would your equalities data and reporting withstand external scrutiny?
How are your governance fora and scrutiny mechanisms building in consideration of equity and inclusion — and flagging those decisions that could increase inequity, so that decision-makers can properly debate them? Is this assurance process systematised and working? Do your board reports include and track improvement against meaningful E&I metrics from across the divisions?
HR, L&D and culture: This is bread-and-butter work for most HR teams, so I’m capturing the basics here for completeness for everyone else. Do colleagues feel valued in the workplace? Do staff feel they can talk about equity and inclusion — and give feedback — and that they’ll be listened to? Do colleagues get training to support inclusion, for example, on anti-racism and how to be an ally?
Do HR policies support inclusive working including flexible hours, time off for religious holidays, reasonable adjustments? Do they adjust for unconscious biases — for example using blind recruitment, or perhaps using contextual recruitment where a candidate’s achievements are put in the context of their background? Is gendered language removed from job ads, and salaries or salary bands added in? Do they have a strategy for addressing the firm’s pay gaps?
Which groups are underrepresented at a senior level in your firm? Is there an active succession planning and development to build the diverse talent pipeline you need—by investing in the future of underrepresented employees with coaching, mentoring and other opportunities? Is your organisation measuring performance on improving representation, retention, and other indicators of inclusivity in your workplace?
As you can see, so much of this is beyond the span and mandate of even the best HR team. To make a real impact, we need active, intentional and ongoing efforts in every corner of the organisation — and so unless your firm’s leadership is simply paying lipservice to it, equity and inclusion has to be everyone’s job.