Diversity & Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace: “culture fit” is a cop-out

Lydia Watson

No-one likes being called out. It’s all too easy to get on the defensive, if you’re being accused of something negative – and that’s why, when organisations are excused of being too homogeneous, you hear a lot of the same responses.

“We don’t see the person, just their skills”. “We recruit based on culture fit”. “We just hire the best candidate”. But if the best candidate always seems to fall into a particular demographic, you need to take a look at your hiring practices.

The diversity and inclusion failure in business

When there are more chief executives called Steve than those belonging to minority ethnicities, it couldn’t be more clear that organisations need to do better. The UK has just five FTSE 100 CEOS that belong to a minority group – and while we need to lead from the top, making room for role models, hiring practices are a good place to start.

Research shows there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to hiring:

  • Using identical CVs, white applicants are 74% more likely to be successful than ethnic minority candidates
  • Both men and women were found to prefer male candidates, and deem them more competent, in a Yale study
  • McKinsey found that 63% of men’s professional networks were made up of “most or all men”, compared to 38% of women
  • Research found that if there’s just one minority candidate in the final stages of interview, they have almost no chance of success
  • There’s evidence that hiring teams reframe their job specs based on the demographics of competing candidates, in a way that disadvantages certain groups

Whether these things resonate with you or not, it’s a societal reality that you need to consider. And if you don’t? Well, it could hurt your business.

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The benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace

First off, this unbalance is bad for everyone, both morally and financially – with the “UK economy is losing £2.6bn due to ethnic minority discrimination”. And it can damage your company’s financial performance too.

We’ve spoken about it before, but the evidence is there: diverse, inclusive organisations perform better. A range of research showed that sales revenue goes up 3-9% for every 1% increase in gender and racial diversity, diverse companies had 19% higher revenue, and the businesses in the top-quartile for diversity were 33% more likely to be high-performing.

Our research could shed some light as to why. In our study of inclusion in the finance sector, we found a strong correlation between high organisational fitness and a feeling of inclusion. And as organisational fitness is linked to higher profits, performance, and NPS then it all makes sense.

But while diversity and inclusion is good for your business, it’s your moral responsibility to push for it too. So what can you do?

How unconscious bias can affect inclusivity in an organisation

Maybe you don’t think it’s a problem for your company. There are bigger societal problems to blame, right? The thing is, however diversity-minded you think you are, it’s highly like you’re subject to unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias. It’s the phrase for the mental shortcuts our brains use to make decisions – as every second we process 40 conscious and 11 million unconscious pieces of information. Sounds efficient, but it means relying on stereotypes and expectations that could mean you’re not treating prospective hires fairly.

Types of unconscious bias

There are a lot of ways unconscious bias can manifest. There’s evidence that people with “white-sounding” names are 50% more likely to get a second interview, and those with other names are 28% less likely to get an interview in the first place – so names can be a risky area.

More generally, there’s also the “horns effect” where small, irrelevant issues affect your opinion of someone – maybe they had a mannerism that put you off, or (especially relevant now!) there was a connection issue in the video call.

But bias works the other way too. You can be unfairly drawn to people who went to the same university as you, or have a similar background – affinity bias – or you might perceive them to be a more impressive candidate just because they’re physically attractive. The list goes on… and that’s why it’s a difficult thing to confront.

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Unconscious bias training: does it work?

Unconscious bias is such a problem that organisations spend more than $8 billion yearly on training their staff to overcome it – and in recent months we’ve sent senior figures like Labour leader Keir Starmer pledging to get training.

Unconscious bias training (UBT) had its origins in the late 1990s, with the “Implicit Association Test” devised by Yale and University of Washington academics – designed to measure the unconscious prejudices that affect 90-95% of people.

But how effective is it? Well, apparently there’s not much evidence it can change behaviour long term. One study showed it can reduce some bias, but “is unlikely to eliminate it” – supported by other research that suggests diversity training can increase awareness of bias, but showed limited evidence that it can change attitudes or behaviours in the workplace. Scores can also vary from day to day, which questions their validity.

Can unconscious bias training make things worse?

Even if it’s not proven to be effective, it can’t hurt – right? Well, not necessarily. Concerningly, some suggest that UBT poses a risk of entrenching biased attitudes – due to the misunderstanding that they’re unchangeable. Similarly, some suggest there’s a risk of ‘unleashing’ prejudices by explaining them.

Beyond any back-firing, it can also be a sticking plaster situation. A “tick box exercise” that absolves organisations of any further action, without changing their prejudiced behaviours. It comes down to this: the benefits of UBT are questionable, and even if it is effective, it’s not enough to get the certificate and leave it there.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion: make a strategic plan

So if Unconscious Bias Training by itself isn’t enough, what can you do?

Well firstly, you don’t have to avoid it altogether. Use it as one part of your diversity and inclusion strategy: part of a wider programme, combine it with perspective-taking exercises, or use it as a starting point for wider conversations

There’s other steps you can take – removing names from applications, placing job ads in non-traditional places, and making your actual hiring team diverse. But you’ll have the best results if you make an action plan based on data.

It’s your responsibility to have a diverse, inclusive workplace – and that starts far before the interview stage. If you’re not attracting a diverse range of candidates, you can find ways to combat that.

When the Professional Golfers’ Association of America was looking to build a more diverse organisation, they looked at the barriers that those from diverse backgrounds faced. The data showed a lack of awareness of job openings and less access to industry contacts were the main two blockers – and from those insights, they made tangible changes like increasing the visibility of people of colour in golf, forming strategic partnerships with their communities, and creating systems of accountability. They gathered the data, analysed it, and made effective changes – that’s what you need to do

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What is the difference between diversity and inclusion?

Diverse hiring practices are essential: for your company, for your industry, and for the world.

But it doesn’t stop there. You could have the most diverse organisation in the world… but if the majority of your employees feel unheard, unrewarded, and unwanted then does it matter?

That’s where inclusion comes in. And if you don’t have a grasp of whether your people feel safe, accepted, like they belong, and that they can trust you, you won’t know if you have the sort of organisation that a diverse range of people want to be a part of.

That’s why we offer our Diversity and Inclusion solution – giving your employees a safe way to speak up, and letting you really listen to their concerns. Once you know what they are, you can address them properly. And if you really care about a future that’s diverse and inclusive, you’ll do that for your team.

It’s time to start the conversation

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