It is well understood that organisations that take advantage of diversity and its accompanying new range of perspectives, experiences, and knowledge have superior performance. It is also well documented that in many regions of the world a shortage of talent looms in response to retiring baby boomers, changing capabilities needed in the workplace, globalisation and low employment.

This talent shortage means a greater demand for women and other underrepresented groups that are increasingly comprising larger portions of new workforce entrants as well as candidates for promotion. What is less recognised is that diversity is an issue as critical for employee engagement as it is for talent acquisition. It’s not sufficient to ensure equal representation in your workplace—without inclusion, the crucial connections that attract diverse talent, encourage their participation, foster innovation, and lead to business growth, won’t happen.

Several studies have shown that employees who feel included are more likely to innovate, support one another and go the extra mile (discretionary effort). A global report from, which contains the responses of 1,500 employees from Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico, and the United States, shows that employees that feel a sense of belonging are more likely to go beyond the call of duty to help co-workers, suggest new product ideas, and try new ways of getting work done.

How much does a sense of belonging drive team citizenship?
China: 71% – Mexico: 60% – India: 43% – Australia: 41% – Germany: 33% – US: 29%

A related research published on the Harvard Business Review shows a strong link between inclusion and employee engagement. The research revealed that team members who have leaders who exhibit inclusive behaviours are more likely than those with non-inclusive leaders to say that they’re willing to go the extra mile for the employer and express more commitment to stay with the company. Research from Korn Ferry also shows this connection. Eighty-four percent of the 700 respondents agreed that a lack of focus on diversity and inclusion contributed to employee turnover at their organisation.

Although the evidence–and common sense–tells us that employees who feel valued, understood, and comfortable are more motivated and engaged, in many organisations people do not even feel safe to contribute their ideas or suggestions. Organisational psychologist Tony Grant reveals in his Ted Talk, that 85 percent of employees do not share their ideas in the workplace for fear of being embarrassed.

The failure to create an environment that offers employees a feeling of belonging and a safe place to share ideas and discuss issues is generally caused by some form of bias, conscious or unconscious. In some cases it’s almost invisible, in others it is an accepted practice for hiring, developing, or advancing individuals.

Take for example, Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel investments and one of the shining stars of corporate America. Mellody is also a woman of colour and in a recent interview she revealed that she’s experienced a good deal of discrimination in her career because of her race. “I’ve been in meetings where men at the table don’t make eye contact, and I’m like, I’m the president.” Mellody believes that people who engage in this type of behaviour are doing this unconsciously.

The problem is, if this type of discrimination happens to the president of an organisation, one can only conjure that such unconscious behaviour is insidious in all levels. In order to create the inclusive work environments that diverse workforces require, organisations need a way to identify all forms of bias and articulate how to eliminate them to leaders, frontline managers and employees in a constructive and enduring way.

Let’s look at a case study* to illustrate how companies can address inclusion more effectively.

Robert has been a Finance Manager for almost three years. An MBA graduate in his thirties, Robert is doing very well and generally feels that he has life “by the horns.” He’s seen as a relationship builder and knows that promotion depends not just on skill and ability, but also getting others to buy into his ideas. Although he isn’t the most tenured member of his team, he is held in high regard and resembles the department leaders in terms of thinking and communication styles, background and values.
Ever the strategic thinker, Robert rigorously sizes up Peter and Rick, his competition, and concludes that barring catastrophe, he’ll be first in line for promotion to Director. Robert gives little thought to his performance evaluation as he has been told by his manager on more than one occasion that he is doing well.
A month later it is announced that Ruth has been promoted to Director. Robert and many of the people around him are shocked. Robert had no idea that Ruth wanted the job, much less was a viable candidate. Everything’s moving at breakneck speed so Robert’s manager Bruce hasn’t discussed the promotion with him. Rumour has it that Finance is trying to improve the ‘numbers’ and Ruth was the best choice available. Robert never bought into the reverse-discrimination stuff , but now he’s starting to wonder. He’s determined to get time on Bruce’s calendar soon to find out why he wasn’t promoted.

Beliefs about the laws and diversity programs create headwinds when people view themselves as unfairly losing out on opportunities. Their productivity or engagement may decline if they become convinced that the traditional paths to success are no longer available. Compounding that damage, such beliefs can cause them to treat those perceived to be program beneficiaries in ways that are detrimental to those people’s careers—for instance by withholding crucial feedback, applying different standards their work, or labelling them “diversity promotions.”

The notion that promotions are completely based on merit is a fallacy. Yet, most organisations fail to acknowledge, let alone communicate, this simple fact. Ruth could have been promoted for many reasons. Perhaps someone else needed experience in Ruth’s present role as a stretch assignment so Ruth had to be moved and she was deemed promotable; maybe the organisation wanted Ruth to play a key role elsewhere and six months in the Director’s position would provide her with necessary training; or possibly Ruth would bring a desired perspective, approach or background that had been missing at that level. Any or all of the above could be true and assuming that Ruth is a strong performer, the decision is a solid one. Still, such determinations generally lack transparency, leading to harmful assumptions. This is further exacerbated in some regions of the world by the public and political debates about the fairness and effectiveness of antidiscrimination laws and diversity-promoting initiatives.

Just as business leaders lay out the skills and competencies required for promotion, they must also convey the fluidity of decisions made about development and advancement. Having such talent management practices in place would put Robert’s boss, Bruce, on more solid footing.

Still, all of the above are intellectual responses to what are often emotional reactions. Bruce, having been party to the discussions that went into promoting Ruth, may fail to see why anyone would question the move’s fairness or the headwinds that it might generate. In fact, maybe Bruce doesn’t believe the decision was just, or thinks the organisation overvalues diversity and inclusion at the expense of its traditions and standards. This possibility also underscores why talent management cannot be done in a vacuum, coaching one manager at a time. Rather all leaders should have quantifiable talent management metrics (such as ones for employee engagement), as part of their own performance evaluation. That’s the foundation Bruce needs as he gives due thought to the headwinds he must manage to enable both Robert and Ruth to succeed in the months and years to come.

Robert’s situation captures some of the difficulties, conflicting perspectives and thought processes that routinely come across in organisations. Based on my own experience and observation, I offer the following advice for leaders to address these challenges and ensure their employees feel included and are treated fairly:

Drive and promote a diversity and inclusion agenda
Organisations must articulate—clearly and frequently—the positive effect that a diverse and inclusive workforce at all levels has on desired business outcomes. When they can quantify and demonstrate these connections their people are less likely to view themselves as unfairly losing out on opportunities. It’s also important to incorporate inclusion skills into existing core leadership competencies and hold leaders accountable for exemplifying them.

Communicate, ask questions
Build an organisational environment that maximises and leverages the diverse thinking, communication styles, talents, backgrounds and perspectives of all employees. The organization should show a mutual respect and recognition of these different contributions. People sometimes hesitate to talk but if they are asked questions, they feel compelled to fill the void. Some organisations for example, write agendas as questions to get staff engaged in conversations. Instead of stating ‘Project A is behind schedule’ you could try ‘How can we allocate more resources to project A?’

Address headwinds
It’s important to distinguish between performance issues and lack of success caused by headwinds impeding one’s ability to perform. Once the headwind is identified, enable your employees to discuss them without describing them as “isms” (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). Managers and leaders should step up when these forces are pushing their direct reports off track. The cost of not addressing headwinds is not just to the individual, but also to the entire organisation; the energy sapped by headwinds should instead be flowing into productivity, engagement, innovation, and exceeding customers’ expectations.

Create a coaching culture
A coaching culture means an open environment that gives and receives feedback, and supports employees so that they learn new skills and become greater assets to the company. Such culture emphasizes training, regular feedback (through formal reviews, assessments and engagement surveys and informal meetings) and opportunities for growth. This open environment encourages respect for diverse points of view, learning from others, and promotes a more engaged and energised workforce.

Eliminating bias and encouraging inclusion is hard work and requires resources and participation by employees at all levels. But it pays off. With greater inclusion, individuals feel that they can bring their whole self to work and are free to contribute and go the extra mile for the organisation. In an inclusive culture all employees can do their best work.

Download the report series Closing the Gender Gap for insights on how to improve gender diversity and inclusion in your workplace.


* The information contained in this case study is to be used only as an example. Any similarities with people and companies is a coincidence.


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