Lisa Kepinski, founder and director, Inclusion Institute

Founder and director of Inclusion Institute, Lisa Kepinski, has been a senior global diversity and inclusion executive with AXA, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard. She also co-authored the Inclusion Nudges Guidebook, exploring behavioural drivers behind bias. She shares her insights on achieving cultural change.

Taking the moral position, that diversity and inclusion are ‘the right thing to do’ has not motivated change in business. Yet there has never been a senior leader that has said to me, ‘I want to treat people unfairly’. We all want to be fair to feel good about our interactions with each other.

Compliance is not generating change either. In fact, compliance often has negative consequences. For example, increasing the number of women at the top is often a hard metric within organisations, or a legislative topic. But it can trigger backlash and make people suspicious about talent decisions: ‘Did she really get that promotion because she’s qualified?’ ‘Is she up to the same level of leadership capabilities as her peers?’ ‘Did you hire me because of me, or because of my gender?’

Defining the end goals

I’m not saying don’t do metrics, don’t track, or don’t have targets. D&I needs to be evidence-based, and driven by data. And that requires deep diagnostics and a full cultural analysis around the areas to change, and the levers that can enable this change to happen. From there you develop the focus and initiatives. But always make sure that there are just a small number; a maximum of three or four. What we see in the D&I field is an awful lot of activity that is well-meaning, but not strategically linked up to the end goals. D&I at times seems like this long list of activities, yet we’re still not seeing change happening.

When I talk with heads of organisations, I ask general questions around the strategic direction of the organisation, the trends and shifts happening externally, the talent initiatives and the cultural initiatives, and the CEO will say, ‘We’ve been talking for 20 minutes but you haven’t yet raised diversity and inclusion.’ But in fact, that’s what we’re talking about. Diversity and inclusion are the enablers for achieving the goals of the organisation. If you frame D&I in that way − in terms of understanding clients, growth areas, social trends and impacts, and future legislation on the horizon − then you see D&I differently. Diversity is not the minority; it includes the majority as well. Inclusion is the experience of working in the organisation. D&I itself is not the end goal.

Choosing your words

We also need to be aware that there can be a bias around the language of diversity. ‘Diversity’ itself is one of those words that often carries negative baggage. If I’m part of the majority population and I have felt targeted because of the way diversity has been handled in the past, I’ll be less likely to engage in this work. I will have all my defences up. I may not want to go to a course on unconscious bias if I feel like I’m going to be the target. You should frame the conversation in a way that is not going to activate negative associations.

Oftentimes leaders are used to seeing small numbers of minority populations when looking at data. For example, ‘We only have 10% of women at senior leadership level.’ But it’s far more unsettling if we present that data as ‘Our senior leadership is 90% male.’ We’re operating on automatic, unreflective thought processes, and we’re not motivated to challenge the 10% in the same way that we are when we see the flipside. This is why compliance against metrics often doesn’t work. We need to stop focusing on trying to see the minority as the problem to be fixed, and instead say, ‘If I have 90% males then I may not have a rich team and the widest range of input.’ So instead of trying to get 30% women, why not try to avoid having more than 70% of any one gender? That approach could be applied to any dimension of diversity.

Reporting structure

The first criteria that a successful D&I strategy needs is commitment, and the best diversity and inclusion programmes are leadership-led. We say that a lot, but it’s rare to find it, because of the nature of the conversation. It’s framed up as a compliance issue or a PR issue, but if it’s embedded into the strategy of how we use our culture and our people to enable success, it leads to a very different perspective around the work. D&I is often viewed within HR, and can be even further buried underneath talent management or some other function. That reporting structure can frame up how you see the work happening, and what we are then missing out on are the multiple areas of impact potential on other parts of the organisation, such as innovation, R&D, communication, leadership development, market growth and product development or services.

For example, you might be rolling out a product focused on increasing flexible working. That could be an HR conversation, but it could equally be a conversation about real estate, because you’re talking about people working in specific locations. It’s also a conversation with the IT department around the programmes required to be able to work flexibly. It’s a conversation with talent attraction and recruitment as well, to consider how this widens up the talent market. And it is a conversation with the legal department on country-specific legislation impacting working models. Then it becomes a mindset of working collaboratively. D&I can sit anywhere, but with the mindset that it’s bigger than one area.

Challenging stereotypes

Legal training stands on justice and equality issues; it’s the whole reason for being as a profession. So why have we not leveraged that power and that motivation more in terms of collaboration between the legal colleagues and the D&I colleagues? Typically we see that the involvement of the in-house legal team is set up around externally mandated quotas, compliance, employee grievances, and/or legal action. So that conversation is coming from a negative position. But why are we not viewing this preemptively, from a positive platform? Often the internal framing of the legal team on D&I-type issues is reactive and protective. For example, it can be a problem to get D&I professionals to share best practice beyond their company, and we hear them say, ‘Our legal team won’t let us share anything externally.’ But our advice is: don’t share the numbers, just share practices. There is a need to work on the bias or the stereotype that we may have of in-house legal colleagues, to enable them to be a stronger strategic business partner and open the mindset of how we engage with them to realise a wider range of possibilities.

A final thought is that I often hear law firms saying ‘We are eliminating bias.’ I think there’s a certainty from a legal mind that we must get rid of all bias – that it’s unacceptable, it’s unjust. But we can’t eliminate bias; that’s how our brains are wired. The challenge is what are we doing to work with our brains, what are we doing with our systems and processes, to highlight that bias exists and then design interventions that can help mitigate the bias in our decision-making and behaviours.