How important is it to practice what you preach?

Darren Maw urges L&D teams to follow their own advice – especially with regard to diversity and inclusion.


Equality, diversity and inclusion have been growing in importance for organisations in recent years. Companies are keen to showcase the diversity of their workforce, whilst those who are not perceived to have a diverse workforce (for example, all white, male senior leadership teams) become the subject of public controversy.

Many business leaders make the mistake of viewing diversity and inclusion as a charitable endeavour or good PR. In fact, it’s so much more – and to be blunt, if they are championing diversity for the sake of looking or feeling good, then they are not championing diversity.

There is plenty of research proving the benefits of a diverse workforce, demonstrating that teams made up of personnel with different genders, ages, and ethnicities will achieve better results. However, there is so much more to it than these protected characteristics; diversity of life experience and background is just as essential.

Diversity in expectation is becoming more evident in today’s workforce, especially amongst millennials who expect and demand diverse and fair working cultures.

Research published this year in Harvard Business Review explored the concept of ‘cognitive diversity’ looking at differences in the way we think and process information. During the study, teams were challenged with problem solving tasks.

Unsurprisingly, those that had more cognitive diversity were able to complete the challenges in good time, whereas the teams with similar perspectives took longer or failed to complete the tasks. There is a hard business case for variation and it’s about time HR and L&D functions started practising what they have been preaching.

Humans are programmed to gravitate towards people who think and express themselves in similar ways, which results in like-minded teams that are less diverse.

Taking Vista as an example, whose employees are mostly lawyers and professionals, it would be easy to develop a tendency to look to hire from the pool of Russell Group University alumni, as they are often seen as the more desirable candidates. However, this would create a narrow diversity of experience.

Diversity and equality doesn’t necessarily mean inclusion. A diverse workforce will not bring benefits if some employees are not fully included. You need both aspects to see an increase in productivity, innovation, staff retention, and attracting the best talent.


Read more about diversity and inclusion here

Learning and development practitioners should be able to show that they ‘walk the talk’. The goals may seem obvious, but consistency is key in these matters, and complacency is not acceptable. Much of what Vista did for diversity and inclusion was informal, but to achieve the standard, formal evidence was required.

It was necessary to scrutinise and strengthen the structure that sits around the culture, and continue to monitor this, to ensure consistency and continuous improvement. This also brought opportunities to influence suppliers and clients alike.

Part of the assessment process included the assessor speaking to employees, suppliers and clients, so diversity is measured externally as well as internally. The extensive, but flexible, assessment allows any organisation to prove to clients that they are a consistent and forward thinking organisation.

Taking steps to cement the culture in this way isn’t just external proof of expertise; it’s also a way of showcasing internally the value of L&D. An age-old issue for the industry is accurate measurement; it isn’t as easy as counting up numbers and monetary value.

A standard like this provides a way of measuring an approach – diversity is in place, productivity is improved, and the business as a whole becomes more successful. The inputs for diversity and inclusion are usually limited amounts of time, whilst getting a structure in place, rather than financial.

Another huge positive outcome of these endeavours is the feedback; this process provides L&D with external insight into how it can continue to improve. For an industry that revolves around helping organisations to improve, it’s about time that learning and development started to take its own advice.


About the author

Darren Maw is managing director of Vista Employer Services, the first private sector organisation to achieve the British Standard for Diversity and Inclusion.


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