Diversity and Inclusion: time to redesign the experience


Well, there are a few topics which have garnered as much research and opinions in recent years as Diversity and Inclusion. Every organization worth its salt and standing has dedicated resources, people and thinking to make this agenda an integral part of their strategic imperatives. Organizations have taken on aggressive hiring and promotion targets, and they trickle down to each leader’s goal sheets. The very definition of Diversity and Inclusion programs has broadened over the years to include varied talent pools (based on gender, physical abilities, sexual preferences, generation group etc.)

Organizations at the forefront of innovative people practices have introduced a number of interventions across the employee lifecycle spectrum – mentoring forums, leadership development workshops, career skills training, community support groups, support post-life-stage change events etc.

But the questions remain as relevant today as before: Are diversity and inclusion programs creating impact? Are they really driving business outcomes? Are they delivering a positive RoI?

I see a few fundamental challenges with the design of Diversity and Inclusion strategy and interventions.

  1. significant investment is being made on branding oriented point in time interventions – yes, I am talking about International Women’s Day events too!
  2. The programs are designed to drive goals and priorities set at the top.
  3. The programs largely focus on demographic diversity, but there is limited thinking or tangible actions addressing differences in mental or behavioral makeup – goals, drivers, motivations manifesting as personality types, career anchors etc.
  4. The impact is being measured in terms of hard targets (recruitment or promotion targets are perhaps the most popular metrics). This leads to a relentless focus on chasing the target, often discounting the context (do you have sufficient talent available to choose from?) or intent (is meritocracy being compromised?)
  5. Or impact is being measured through self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, showcasing participation of women in training or leadership development programs that have been specifically designed for them.

I do not completely disregard any of these interventions or metrics. After all, what gets measured gets done. However, the time has come for all business and HR leaders to evaluate the impact of Diversity and Inclusion interventions. Are these programs really desired by the users? Are we designing programs with the required returns, and how are we measuring the impact for every penny spent? Are they flexible for changes in organization scale and design?

So what is the solution? Perhaps approaching it from an employee experience lens. For this discussion, let us consider a persona. Personas are reflective of key talent segments we are solving for.

Persona 1 – Diya, now in her mid-30s, works as a brand manager in a large multinational.

The backstory – She joined the organization a year after her post-graduation in business administration. She has had a successful career with a string of quick promotions and high visibility roles. She had built a tremendous equity in the organization. After coming back from her maternity leave, Diya feels a bit lost though. Given a brand manager is a critical role and was backfilled in her absence, she now has been asked to manage a few internal projects. She enjoyed a greater working relationship with her Supervisor but now has another reporting level in between.

Goals – Diya remains fiercely aspirational. She does need to give more time and attention to her personal priorities this year but at the same time, she should continue progressing in her desired career path. Her career aspirations give her meaning and purpose.

Frustrations – While she appreciates the greater work-life balance she has achieved, she cannot help wondering what is her career path from now on. She doubts if working on internal projects will add to her desired skills and expertise. Her conversations with her new Supervisor remain largely work oriented, and she misses the coaching and mentoring she received from her earlier Supervisor. She wishes her Supervisor had a career conversation with her before she returned from her maternity leave to ascertain what will work for her and what will not. She feels her aspirations and needs have been broad-brushed under a larger standardized diversity agenda. Any communication, conversation or learning intervention seems to be driven as a part of an org level program for maternity return employees, and she does not like being branded as a “maternity return case” or as a “diversity employee”

At this point, let me step back and define the design challenge for this persona. “How might we create Diversity and Inclusion programs enable our women employees coming back from a career break become successful in our organization realize their purpose and aspirations? In what ways might we support them in balancing their personal commitments with the needs and demands of their professional commitments? In what ways might we continue to give them a meaningful long-term career path?

No program design can be successful if it does not keep the human needs as the starting point. Solving for this talent segment will entail an extensive user research to discover relevant insights, the design of employee experience journeys, identifying moments of impact, and enabling those moments through prioritized investments.

An employee experience journey goes beyond time spent at work or at the office. It needs to take account moments before and after which impact the experiences. For this persona, the experience starts a few weeks before Diya is set to return from her maternity leave and extends for a year or so to ensure she has integrated well and is back to where she belongs in terms of her career path, quality and impact of work, and equity in the system. The experience extends to the support she gets at the office as well as the support she gets at home from her husband and family. Conversations with Diya as well as other employees at similar life stages will help one ascertain what are the most desired experiences/ or moments of impact. For example, an insight could be the need for a career conversation with the employee before she returns from her leave to understand her commitments, desired work etc. before deciding the relevant role for her. Another insight could be continuity in the Supervisor or Coach (who has the context to her goals and aspirations) to ensure Diya maintains a strong connection with the organization and does not feel lost or directionless on return. A third insight could be the need to involve the women’s partner/ husband in employee assistance interventions, including sessions on ‘Managing life changing events together’. Of course, each intervention has to be evaluated for viability (what monetary investments will it entail?) and feasibility (are they scalable and sustainable?)

Adopting a human-centered employee experience-driven approach will entail the following fundamental shifts in an organization’s Diversity and Inclusion strategy:

A significant investment is being made on enabling moments of impact for critical talent segments/ personas.

The programs are designed for human needs and desired experiences.

They look at the individual’s experience journeys more holistically and over a reasonable period of time. They are flexible to take into account the context of an individual and DO NOT bucket the individual as a “diversity candidate”. Data-driven insights (talent analytics) and Artificial Intelligence (e.g. chatbots for recommending available roles, training, benefits available post return from a break) can play an important role in enabling this personalization. For example, getting personalized coaching just after a life or career milestone may be more impactful than attending a standard leadership development program.

The programs focus on demographic diversity, as well as addressing differences in mental or behavioral makeup – goals, drivers motivations manifesting as personality types, career anchors etc.

It is also important to identify and showcase role models one can identify with i.e. those with similar drivers or experiences.

The impact is measured across the experience journey, with pulse feedback being enabled at the moments of impact.

One should continue to look at the hard targets as well but not in isolation, and definitely not at a point in time. For example – a timeframe of six months post return from maternity leave may show a low attrition rate, but expanding that timeframe to a year or two may show a significant spike in attrition with women leaving due to their career aspirations not being met.

It is important to build RoI or eNPS measures for moments that matter to determine the impact of the investments made.

Driving Inclusion and Diversity as a mass approach is often self-defeating, as is obvious from the implicit resentment in the system for target driven promotions and hiring, often at the cost of meritocracy. Remember, this has a much deeper impact on culture than we can imagine, the culture of an organization is ever evolving and gets shaped by what gets rewarded and what does not.

Want to discuss how to create meaningful employee experience journeys for your critical talent pools? Do reach out to us, happy to have a conversation!