Just focusing on behavioral inclusion – seeking via training to change individual behaviors distorted by unconscious bias, privilege, and lack of first-hand experience with people who are different — will not lead to transformational change.
Unless enterprises change the organizational structures— the practices, processes, and systems that surround and support individual behaviors — their behavioral change efforts will not take root. Structural inclusion is what makes behavioral inclusion stick.
This does not mean I agree with the journalistic evergreen topic that resurfaces cyclically in the media with “Diversity Training Does Not Work” headlines such as those in early 2023 in articles in The Atlantic and TheNew York Times which questioned the effectiveness of diversity training.
In fact, buried in most of these research findings is a much more compelling and helpful truth. After having documented how diversity training has failed to bring about change, the researchers land on this conclusion: while there is a material difference between poorly and well-designed training, fundamentally it’s not the training at fault for the lack of results — it’s the lack of understanding of what problem organizations are trying to solve. Often the root causes are tied to the absence of structural inclusion. Without it, nothing ends up sticking and DE&I becomes vulnerable to the critique that it does not bring any change.
Structural inclusion can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Here are three:
By rooting out biases from talent systems
By identifying root causes that aren’t about diversity and inclusion
By leveraging diversity and inclusion as an enabler to business success
By Rooting out Biases from Talent Systems
Not all thought leadership has to be about the new. It’s also about calling that which still has not changed despite having been identified as a core issue a long time ago. It’s not a secret that talent systems, starting with talent acquisition and moving all the way through talent management, talent development, talent advancement, total rewards, succession management, and leadership development are rife with criteria that inadvertently filter out talent that represents a vaster and more diverse talent pool. This is due to these processes having embedded in their requirements that, due to unchallenged legacy practices, favor the people with profiles similar to that of those currently in leadership.
Since so much has been written on how this manifests, here I will not travel down well-trodden narratives. Instead, I offer the following call to action:
The issue is not not knowing the gaps. Rather it’s not doing what needs to be done. And this burden is not the DE&I office’s burden to carry. Rather it requires human resource leaders having much more fortitude to have their own talent systems and teams be held accountable for the heavy lift of identifying the structural exclusions and rooting them out.
This burden is not the DE&I office’s burden to carry. Rather it’s HR’s.
“This burden is not the DE&I office’s burden to carry. Rather it’s HR’s.”
By Identifying Root Causes that Aren’t About Diversity and Inclusion
The story of one technology managing consultancy illustrates this.
Tensions ran high at one of the fast-paced global technology consulting companies we were called into to help address a business issue. The demand for their deep level of expertise is extreme, and so are client expectations for their time. The pace of their 60-hour work week is relentless and their travel requirements crushing as they jump on intercontinental flights at a moment’s notice.
They were also having difficulty retaining many of the female consultants they have, despite hiring at nearly 50/50 male/female parity among recent college graduate hires. The organization was quick to believe – and act on this belief — that the intensity of their consultancy demands led to their high attrition rate of talented women consultants. The answer, they were sure, lay in developing policies that allowed for more work-life balance.
As we evaluated the culture both by looking at behavioral and structural inclusion, we discovered that while there were some behavioral gender-biased attitudes, the root cause was grounded in a structural issue: poor manager selection, development, and reward. Great technologists were being rewarded with promotions that included people management responsibilities they neither wanted nor knew how to address.
While this affected both men and women, these women were disproportionally affected because of the lack of informal systems working for them. With technology still a traditionally male-dominated field, women were either being shut out of the “boys club” or being asked to adapt to a more male‑influenced culture. This was compounded by the lack of effective people managers, who lacked the tools to coach their people into optimal performance and career growth while being even further disconnected from understanding gender inequity dynamics. No wonder women were leaving at a higher rate.
No wonder women were leaving at a higher rate.
Realizing the underlying issue was much deeper than providing work-life balance options for women, the firm implemented structural inclusion solutions targeting the root cause of the issue through management and leadership training, which was buttressed with specific DE&I training on unconscious biases that helped them see that they were misunderstanding the nuanced challenges women on their teams were facing. In addition, crucially, measurable accountabilities for effective people management were put in place. And, of course, policies that allowed for greater work-life flexibility were also enacted as an important but now understood secondary line of defense, to increase the retention of both women and men.
By Leveraging Diversity and Inclusion as an Enabler to Business Success
Yes, structural inclusion brings us back to the driving argument of this series that the way forward to DE&I’s sustainability is for it to be channeled as an enabler of business success.
Let’s talk about the cosmetics industry as a case in point.
Talk about a makeover. In a 2020 survey, 63% of women of color felt that their needs were not being addressed by beauty companies. No surprise since the beauty industry in general, and cosmetics stores in particular, had been paeans to white standards of beauty.
But no longer.
Walk into a cosmetics store today and many of them have been transformed from a space that had been limited to carrying a skin tone color range that did not stray too far from “ivory” and “bisque” to one with a vast array of colors extending all the way to “chestnut” and “espresso.”
It’s not just the cosmetics colors that have changed. So has the diversity of what is seen throughout the stores. Now, cosmetic store guests don’t just see themselves in the mirror’s reflections as they test makeup in the store – they also see themselves in in-store ads, product packaging, and, increasingly, in the store staff.
Much of this is the result of cosmetic makers first, and following, cosmetic retailers, realizing if they are going to grow they need to see the entire marketplace. Expanding the color palette of product offerings has been the most obvious change, yet it had been tellingly elusive. The awakening has led to an explosion in the cosmetics industry where growth has been fueled by consumers of color.
Expanding the color palette of product offerings is the most obvious, yet has been so elusive.
When Rihanna released her Fenty Beauty line in 2017 she included 40 different foundation shades. In 2020 Best Buy committed to spend $1.2 billion with businesses owned by people of color by 2025. Macy’s pledged to allocate 15 percent of its shelf space to Black-owned brands. Ulta Beauty — the largest beauty retailer in the U.S. with over 1,300 stores and 40,000 associates – made a $25 million commitment in 2021 to double black-owned brands in its stores, feature more women of color in ads, and do marketing outreach to Black and Latina consumers.
With all this, it’s no surprise then, that according to NielsenIQ in 2022 while overall personal care spending grew 3.5%, the African American market grew 5.4%, and the Latina market grew 6.1%. All of this led Ulta CEO Dave Kimbell to explain to Business Insider how “diversity equity inclusion is not separate from our business strategies.”
And how does a go-to-market strategy turn into structural inclusion that reinforces behavioral inclusion? As they made these marketplace moves, the various cosmetic retailers had to ensure all who came into their stores had a positive and inclusive experience. This went beyond products and store glamour shots.
Their talent had to be ready – both by ensuring it reflected the client base they wanted to attract and for all employees to be aware of how their potential unconscious biases could manifest in interacting with a diverse array on shoppers. To this end, several of them introduced crosscultural competence training in their stores and there were efforts to ensure that their salon associates and salespeople reflected the consumers they were going to serve. They also had to update their salon training so hair specialists could work with any hair type or skin color.
By addressing structural inclusion in growing their diverse market, the cosmetics industry’s transformation has been more than skin-deep.
Bringing It Home
To address DE&I’s reckoning we must shift from defense against attacks on the industry and move to offense on why it’s essential for economic growth, profits, and attracting the best talent. To do so, engineering structural inclusion must be a top priority embraced by business leaders, marketers, and human resources practitioners in collaboration with the diversity professionals in their midst.