Let’s imagine your car is making a strange whistling sound. Or maybe you have a persistent cough. Whether you’re visiting the mechanic or the doctor, you expect to learn and treat the cause of the problem. Merely treating the symptoms isn’t satisfactory – it’s just a temporary or short-term fix.

The same goes in the workplace as leaders continue to intensify their focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). But as 55 percent of companies reported increasing their DE&I budgets in 2019 and companies in the US alone spend $8 billion a year on diversity training, it’s questionable whether these efforts are really targeting the cause – from both a behavioural (mindsets, skillsets, relationships) and structural (structures, processes, practices) inclusion standpoint.

Research by McKinsey suggests the answer is no and the impact of these efforts is suffering as a result. Their May 2020 report found that while overall employee sentiment on diversity was 52 percent positive (31 percent negative), sentiment on inclusion was significantly more negative – 61 percent negative and only 29 percent positive. 

This is an example of the great challenge that many organisations still face in creating truly diverse and inclusive workplaces. Addressing the symptoms – through initiatives like diverse hiring practices and training – is essential, but it isn’t enough. An inclusive employee experience will only be possible by getting deep into the fabric of the organisation and addressing the root causes.

Of course, the reasons why organisations aren’t as diverse and inclusive as they would like to be will be as varied as the organisations themselves. But across the vast spectrum of possible causes, we’ve identified five classic but often overlooked mistakes that organisations make when it comes to DE&I.

Mistake #1: Assuming the root cause of a DE&I gap is a DE&I issue

One of the biggest risks in addressing DE&I gaps is mistaking assumptions for certainties without the data to back them up.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion – for example, that higher female attrition is driven by a lack of work-life balance. But only a thorough review will show if this assumption is correct, or if other factors, like inferior people management skills are at play.

Acting on assumptions often means the ‘solution’ doesn’t fully address the actual issue, leading to wasted time, energy and resources – and no results.

Mistake #2: Going for the ‘easy’ fix

Everyone knows there is no easy fix for DE&I. But there are certain solutions – like employee resource groups and unconscious bias training – that are becoming known as leading practices because they have visible and compelling impacts.

It’s never going to be a mistake to implement these initiatives. The mistake is thinking they will be the ultimate game-changer – particularly if they’re implemented prematurely or ineffectively.

Without the appropriate processes and reinforcing mechanisms, these initiatives are unlikely to create lasting changes. Things like unconscious bias training, resource groups and quotas are powerful DE&I practices but they can’t succeed in isolation. Organisations need to build a strong DE&I foundation and then create the support systems to embed these practices to really advance inclusion in the workplace.

Things like unconscious bias training, resource groups and quotas are powerful DE&I practices but without the appropriate processes and reinforcing mechanisms, these initiatives are unlikely to create lasting changes. Click To Tweet

Mistake #3: Promising something impossible

By understanding what is and isn’t possible in an organisation, leaders can create transparency and buy-in around DE&I goals without alienating their people because of unmet expectations.

Take advancement opportunities – one organisation found that long tenure and a flat structure meant advancement opportunities were rare. Instead, they shifted their EVP focus to growth, rather than advancement. Employees knew what they were opting into – a realistic but inspiring career experience.

Mistake #4: Concentrating on the external message while neglecting the internal work

We all know how important walking the talk is. And this is even more critical in DE&I which is so intricately linked with the purpose and values of an organisation.

While many organisations do a good job of raising awareness about the value for DE&I to their leaders, employees, and customers, this is not always matched by the necessary HR practices, governance and accountabilities​. To live up to the DE&I standards that organisations set forth in their internal and external messaging, they have to prioritise five strategic DE&I dimensions: Compliance, Awareness, Talent Integration, Operations Integration, and Market Integration. Doing a DE&I diagnostic can confirm and pinpoint areas of strengths and vulnerability in each of these dimensions.

The Korn Ferry DE&I maturity model measures five strategic DE&I dimensions:


Our model gives you a clear view of how you are performing across the five DE&I dimensions, helping you identify potential problem areas and giving you the guidance and insight you need to close the gaps.

Mistake #5: Focusing on representation and not on pipeline

The visibility of diversity in the leadership team puts it squarely in the DE&I spotlight. Focusing only on the leadership, however, risks championing symbolic change over substantive change.

Scarcity of diversity in the C-suite matters because corporate culture follows leadership. But successful DE&I programs aren’t about filling quotas. How you manage diversity in all stages of your talent pipeline is critical for the success of your DE&I strategy.

Successful DE&I programs aren’t about filling quotas. How you manage diversity in all stages of your talent pipeline is critical for the success of your DE&I strategy. Click To Tweet

By taking a more holistic view of their overall talent systems, organisations can really build DE&I right into the roots of the organisations. And yes, representation at the top will improve too, but it will be a sustainable improvement rather than a symbolic short-term fix.

So, when it comes to the energy and resources put towards DE&I, it pays to put understanding before action in the march towards a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

To learn more about the five classic mistakes and how organisations are deploying DE&I diagnostics to get to the root cause of their DE&I challenges, read Five classic (and overlooked) DE&I mistakes.

Find out how to optimize your DE&I approach with the Korn Ferry DE&I Compass here

Speak to our experts

About the contributors

Alicia Yi is the Vice Chairman Consumer Market for Korn Ferry. Based in Singapore she is also a member of the Board & CEO Services Practice Human Resources Practice Private Equity Practice and Supply Chain Practice.



Andrés is global diversity & inclusion strategist and thought leader at Korn Ferry.



Fayruz is an Associate Client Partner and a specialist in D&I strategies at Korn Ferry.

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