Diversity & Inclusion in Global Companies: A Checklist for Every HR Leader

We already know Diversity & Inclusion are not just nice-to-have buzz words. They help businesses achieve better results.
But how do you bring these words to life in global companies, across different locations?

The other night I was watching TV and saw a commercial for a health science degree. At first glance, it was diverse, showing people from different backgrounds. It wasn’t until I saw it a second time that I realized that when the word ‘nurse’ flashed on the screen, they showed women, and when the words ‘surgical technologist’ flashed, they showed men. The implicit message seems to say: nursing is for women; technology is for men. It uses stereotypes and then confirms them.

I started my IT career in the 90s. I know what it is like to be the only female on the team. I attended countless conferences where I was the only female in the room. I was confronted with stereotypes every day: men who assumed that I was the secretary and would take minutes or bring coffee. I would answer the phone and hear the inevitable question, “I thought I would be connected to the manager.” With a good dose of humor, I got through it. But it should not have to be like this.

We all think in stereotypes. It helps us to organize and simplify all the information that we take in. This is natural behavior: we decide quickly whether someone is like us – and belongs to our group – or is different, and therefore not part of it. It helps us survive. However, this behavior becomes problematic when it drives our decisions without us being aware of it. Then it leads to unconscious bias and decisions that favor ‘some of us’ over the others.

Diversity leads to better results

Gender-diverse and inclusive teams outperform gender-homogeneous, less inclusive teams by 50%, on average.[1] The case for diverse teams has been made over and over.[2] It doesn’t matter which angle you take; diverse teams demonstrably perform better.

Research also shows that employees increasingly prefer diverse work environments. More than half of job seekers look at workforce diversity when evaluating an offer. That’s especially true for female candidates. For example, 61% of women look at the gender diversity of the employer’s leadership team when deciding where to work.[3] How likely is it that you will be promoted if there are no women in leadership roles?

And while this is a gender-based example, you can easily replace this with other minority characteristics. We ask ourselves: can people like us prosper at this company? The most talented individuals go to workplaces that do better with diversity, and this may well be what is driving diverse firms to outperform their peers.

What are we trying to achieve?

When I moved on to the HR tech space, I more often worked in diverse teams. Yet, I have never forgotten what it felt like to stand out and how difficult it sometimes was to make myself heard. That is why I feel so strong about diversity, inclusion, and belonging. When I later joined the leadership, I put the topic on the executive agenda and ran several initiatives. And that made all the difference.

Diversity doesn’t work without psychological safety. You cannot just look at the numbers and decide you are doing well. People only contribute their unique ideas to the group when they feel comfortable enough to speak up and present a contrarian view. And that view must be heard and taken seriously by others for them to keep doing it. That is why you should look at diversity, belonging, and inclusion at the same time.

So how can you make diversity ‘business-as-usual’?

Here is a checklist for every VP of HR out there looking to give Diversity & Inclusion true meaning in today’s increasingly diverse business environments

Make sure when adopting these actions to adjust them to your unique situation.

  1. Address your bias head-on

Unconscious bias (or implicit bias) refers to unconscious forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, , age, etc. Unconscious bias is tricky because it isn’t necessarily intentional, but it does guide how you perceive others and make decisions. It can also be very subtle and be much more difficult to address. Before you can run a successful diversity program, you must confront your beliefs.

Start from the premise that everyone has unconscious bias. There are various programs available that help people uncover their unconscious bias; many of them are online.[5] It will give you an (anonymized) idea of what you are dealing with. For example, we have selected a couple of these courses and made them mandatory to everyone in a leadership position. In the next phase, we rolled them out to the whole workforce.

  1. Look at the data

Look at all the data you have available about workers in your company. Make sure it is actual, relevant, and clean. You might be lucky and have all data in one system, but often that data comes from various sources.

Start with simple sets at the corporate level and look at the most obvious data to get a high-level understanding. It is better to take your time and ensure it’s accurate than to rush in with errors. When you present the data and end up in a discussion about its validity, your program is as good as dead. Present the data in an objective way: it is a snapshot of the current state.

  1. What does the data tell you?

At first, the data might look good: every characteristic is equally represented at the corporate level (or in line with external benchmark data). But you will need to dig deeper and ask yourself what this actually means?

At a second glance, that 50/50 division on gender at the corporate level, might disguise the fact that in lower level roles, the split is quite different. Ask yourself how the division is split when you look at the team level or a country/per site? Slice and dice the data in as many ways as you can. Do women in the same position receive the same total compensation as men? How long between promotions for people from different racial backgrounds? Does ethnicity play a role in promotions?

The answer to these questions sometimes requires a lot more data, and you cannot answer them all at the same time. Just don’t take anything at face value: the reality deep down in the organization or in one of your company’s locations might be quite different from what you observe when looking at the company as a whole.

  1. Ask questions

Once you start to understand the underlying trend behind the diversity issue(s), it’s time to ask questions and improve your understanding of how they influence the workplace. We asked some employees to run a focus group with their peers to give us their input. We ran short surveys with five questions each, asking employees for their opinion. These surveys also helped us get the word out: we care about diversity, and we want to address the issues.

We kept the surveys short, which made it easy for employees to participate, and it allowed us to move fast and take appropriate actions. Once we analyzed the results, we could identify the main topics, explore further, and follow up with another five questions. It also helped us to zoom in on the issues that mattered most to employees. Every survey also contained a text field for comments – in fact, I think we learned as much from those answers as we did from the surveys.

  1. Define clear goals

Once you have a reasonable understanding of the facts, it’s time to set goals and let your teams define actions. This is where executive leadership plays a significant role. I’m a big believer in leadership by example. You can hardly ask your teams to be more diverse if the leadership team is not. So, every leader received diversity goals, trickling those down to the rest of the company.

While you must set corporate goals, you need to think through to see if they make sense at the site level, especially if you run an international company. For example, think about racial make-up: it might be difficult for a particular site to adhere to corporate goals based on the local population. Global goals should make sense at the local level and, if needed, should be adapted accordingly.

The obvious goals pertain to gender, racial, and age bias. Other goals might be more difficult to recognize and achieve: registering characteristics like sexual orientation is not allowed in many countries, so it might be much more difficult to attain. It is more important to start and address the topics that matter to employees than to wait for a program that includes everything. Once you begin to address unconscious bias and diversity and take steps to improve all aspects of it, other areas will improve as well. That’s how you know you are addressing the underlying cause and impact the way people make decisions.

  1. Words matter

The ad signaled: nursing is for women; technology is for men. Words matter more than we think. We often use discriminatory language. It is worthwhile to review the corporate vocabulary: how do you communicate with your workforce? What is the language you use in job postings? There are review programs that will point out quickly if the words you use enforce or minimize unconscious bias. It’s worth a check.

Think about someone addressing the team as “guys” instead of “people,” a clear example of gender-bias. We learned that keywords used in job adverts significantly affect who applies: “manage” and “proven” appeal to men more than women. Using gender-neutral language ensures that people feel included and attract more diverse candidates to apply for roles.

  1. Mentor

A mentoring program helped us succeed in many ways. Here too, we started at the top and gave everyone on the leadership team a candidate to mentor, preferably at least two levels down in the organization. We discovered a mutual benefit: the mentee gets direct exposure to an executive and can ask questions. The mentor receives a much more detailed view of what’s going on in the organization. The mentees received our message of what we wanted the organization to be and shared that with others. In a way, they became advocates of the diversity program.

One important matching criterium we set: you can’t be matched with someone ‘like you.’ Meaning, if you are a male executive, you should mentor a female candidate. If you are a black executive, you should mentor an Asian candidate, for example. We did not exclude anyone from applying to the mentorship program, but we also made it clear we couldn’t accommodate everyone at the same time. We asked mentees to write down what they were hoping to accomplish. Then we interviewed all of them, after which they were matched with their mentor. This approach greatly increased the candidate pipeline when it was time for new appointments.

  1. Accept no excuses

There is always a good reason not to adhere to diversity goals. People will make excuses and come to you with explanations of why you should make an exception for them. If you give in, then others will want equal exceptions. My tip to you is to accept none of them and remind people why you are doing this while helping them find workable solutions to achieve their goals.

This will be tough, but unless you hold everyone accountable for the results, you won’t succeed. It’s amazing the results you get when people can’t talk their way out of it.

  1. Share and celebrate success

While this program started as a corporate initiative, we needed everyone to understand how important this was. We named two executive sponsors to run the program (I was one of them) and started celebrating occasions such as International Women’s Day. The mentees helped us advocate the program, and we shared the results with the workforce several times a year. When new leaders were appointed, we sent an announcement. Our employees saw the teams becoming more diverse, which had a ripple effect on the organization.

  1. Build diverse hiring teams/ consider “blind” interviews

One of the most impactful measures we took was installing diverse hiring teams. Hiring teams consisted of at least three people from different backgrounds. When candidates were interviewed, they talked to the team, and the team made a joint decision. That prevented anyone from hiring only people “like us” and greatly contributed to the overall diversity of the workforce and leadership.

Another option that has been proven to be highly successful is to remove all pertinent information from resumes when evaluating candidates, such as name, address, schools, and locations. This way, only education, skills, and experience factors remain. This method has been proven highly effective in the case of orchestras, which have historically been overwhelmingly composed of white and male, and were able to increase their diversity exponentially by holding blind auditions, asking candidates to perform behind a curtain.[6]

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Working towards a diverse organization, where people feel like they belong and are heard is not a project with a clear end date. It’s an ongoing culture change and an effort to change mindsets: you’re in it for the long run. You are dealing with unconscious bias and stereotypes – they are innate, people have had them all their lives, and behavior is hard to change. There are many reasons why diversity is difficult to achieve. I’m asking you to make diversity and inclusion a business plan, and like every other business plan – you should plan it carefully, set clear goals, and do everything you can to achieve them.

Diversity is about the future. It’s about giving people every opportunity to succeed, regardless of the color of their skin or their beliefs. But even more so, diversity is about us. It is about the decisions we make now to give all people an equal opportunity and to use all talents in the workforce. Just imagine what the world would be like if we allowed people to work to the best of their abilities, without bias or prejudice. Imagine what we could achieve. Imagine what you could!

[1] Gartner, “Diversity and Inclusion Build High-Performance Teams“ 2019

[2] L. Zhang, “An Institutional Approach to Gender Diversity and Firm Performance” 2019 / Credit Suisse Research Institute, “Gender Diversity and Corporate Performance” 2012

[3] PWC, “Winning the fight for female talent” 2017

[4] https://www.lizandmollie.com/workshops

[5] https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/iatdetails.html

[6] https://spectator.us/end-blind-auditions-orchestra/