Let’s not pretend that building an inclusive and diverse workplace is easy. It isn’t – and not just because of the obvious challenges around recruitment, policy and retention.
There are certainly enough practical issues around process and its associated inherent problems that you’ll need to tackle and solve before you’ll be able to genuinely point to a workforce that embodies your ambition around inclusion.
And while these challenges may appear daunting, with the right support, advice, and guidance, they’re actually relatively straightforward to address, even if the work required to meet them takes a good deal of time, effort and money.
If you’re a start-up, and you set off with the right approach and ethos – especially around recruitment – you can score big wins around inclusion fairly quickly, and if you continue to nurture the principles and expectations you’ve put in place, the culture of your organisation will likely evolve naturally, building intrinsic allyships and transparency.
But if you’re running an established organisation where attitudes and thinking are entrenched and perhaps, to one degree or another, intransigent the story may be very different.
It is in these types of businesses where diversity often meets adversity in the shape of cynicism.
At this point it would be foolish to deny reality. We may like to believe that inclusion and diversity are part of a shared societal ambition, but we know that isn’t the case. A quick scroll through your newsfeed is testimony to that.
Although the principles of EDI have been part of the corporate landscape for a good 20 years, there is still resistance to progress. Counterintuitively, perhaps, this issue has been amplified by a welcome (in some quarters, at least) of the EDI conversation.
Back in the day, diversity was an issue that focused pretty much entirely on gender and skin colour, with faith issues sometimes becoming an offshoot of that conversation.
But time and thinking has evolved. Rights around sexuality, enshrined in same-sex relationships and gender identity; and gender equality, disability and age, mental health and general health have given rise to a whole new set of conversations.
Show me one person who celebrated the Lionesses reaching the World Cup final and I’ll show you more who think putting the Women’s Super League results ahead of the men’s Championship scores is outrageous.
And the same is true of pretty much every facet of EDI, from disabled or same-sex competitors on Strictly to arguments about whether the new James Bond should ever be ‘Jane Bond’ or ‘Jamaican Bond’ (yes that’s how the rags talk about it).
Our work is very definitely not done here.
So, how should we approach adversity in our drive to make our workplaces more inclusive spaces?
I think we do that by first recognising and embracing the fact that just as cynicism can be obstructive and damaging, it can also both healthy and helpful.
Cynicism should be the failsafe that ensures companies don’t just see and treat inclusion and diversity as a box-ticking exercise.
It may well be that every person of colour you appoint to a role within your organisation is recruited on merit – I certainly hope so.
But I hope that’s because you have designed your recruitment strategies and processes to ensure that you are attracting a broader range of candidates, and that the diversity of race and ethnicity is a product of that, rather than of narrowing your search to focus exclusively on the colour of someone’s skin.
Being asked to demonstrate that your methods and motivation come from the right place should be an opportunity for you to reinforce the ethos and culture of your organisation.
And while that line of questioning can quickly become tiresome and seemingly malicious if it is unfiltered, our default position in responding to it should probably not be a defensive one.
Cynicism around EDI is a complex issue in contemporary society because in seeking to create equitable and representative spaces, cynicism underscores a range of potentially valid concerns, doubts, and criticisms around motive and execution.
Perhaps the primary trigger for cynicism is the prevalent perception of tokenism, in which organisations are manifestly paying lip service inclusion without making substantial changes. We know it happens, and probably more often than we imagine – so this concern is broadly legitimate, and it requires a mature response.
Tokenism not only fails to address systemic organisational issues but also reinforces the idea that diversity is merely a checkbox rather than a genuine commitment to creating an inclusive environment.
Cynics also raise concerns about performative allyship, where individuals or organisations publicly present a culture of support for EDI, but fail to align their actions with those values.
Sceptics argue that performative allyship can create disillusion, as the gap between words and actions erodes trust and credibility, fostering the belief that EDI efforts are only pursued for the sake of reputation enhancement rather than substantive change. (See here for more info on this and virtue signalling)
Lack of accountability is often the fertile soil in which cynicism breeds. If you don’t provide clear information about your initiatives, progress, and challenges, you open the door to suspicion.
Addressing cynicism around EDI requires organisations to go beyond superficial action and commit to making and communicating meaningful changes within their structures, policies, and practices. Encouraging open dialogue that acknowledges concerns and criticisms can also pave the way for a more inclusive and constructive conversation.
But in the end, what is vital is that cynicism around inclusion that exists should not overshadow the importance of progressing your EDI initiatives. It’s important work that should serve to make your business greater than any underlying suspicion.
And if you approach the work with authenticity, diligence, and a willingness to adapt and learn from mistakes, your place of work will be one that is culturally rich and inherently brave.
Contact us for information on how you can have meaningful and brave conversations that help address cynicism in your ranks.
Because, believe me, with EDI being as big as it is, there is no way at least a hint of it doesn’t exist.