Reaction to the Inclusion at Work Panel’s report

Peter Cheese, the CIPD’s chief executive, reflects on the new report’s recommendations for improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace. 

The Inclusion at Work Panel, set up by Minister for Women and Equalities Kemi Badenoch through the Department of Business and Trade to look at improving diversity and inclusion practice, launched its report on 20 March. 

The report challenges a lot of the work done under the DEI (or EDI) umbrella as lacking ‘impact’, not having clear evidence of what works, overcomplicating the space, and even not being clear on the law. It also highlights where EDI initiatives can backfire or potentially cause more harm than good. The result being not enough value for money or demonstrable positive outcomes for individuals or employers. 

The recommendations from the report are to set up a new framework setting out criteria employers might apply to their EDI practice for effectiveness and value for money, supported by a ‘digital toolkit’.  

There is also a call for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to ‘explain and clarify’ the legal status for employers – clearly a recognition that interpretation of the law, and case law, is complicated and more clarity on both the letter and the spirit of the law is needed.  

The report acknowledges the many challenges, ambiguities and changing imperatives that exist, but then makes strong points about the ‘significant cost and money’ that has been spent without clear evidence of organisational impact. It states that the UK has twice the number of people working in the EDI space than any other country, and the large number of EDI roles and job titles there are now compared to five years ago.  

As we have heard from government ministers recently, there is the view that EDI is costing the public sector a lot of money. But, as this recent BBC Verify article shows, the amount spent on EDI roles varies considerably and, in relation to the size and scale of the public sector, is not significant. Even in the largest councils like Birmingham City, the directly attributable cost of EDI activities amounts to no more than 0.02% of total spend. Interestingly, the report itself identifies a lack of resources as one of the barriers from employers in ‘wanting to do the right thing’. 

Over-reliance on cost measures is therefore questionable, but the report consistently challenges the lack of insight on impact without enough discussion of what impact should be expected. The report does recognise that progress has been made on representation across many dimensions of employment in general, and that impact is not just about demographics but about opportunity and representation. That can be attributed to more focus on EDI in recent years, and in a working population that itself is as diverse as anywhere, as discussed in this recent article in The Economist. 

These are direct outcomes of EDI initiatives, and organisations have been steadily gathering more data on the diversity of their workforces, including importantly, retention and progression. Arguably, the most important impacts of inclusion are just harder to measure - how diversity enables innovation, creativity, and breaking the cycle of group-think, and how inclusion helps people feel safe and supported to give their best. The report comments little on this essential purpose of EDI in workplaces: in protecting from discrimination, in tackling systemic and institutionalised barriers and biases, and in giving opportunity to those who have been marginalised in the past.  

Businesses are increasingly responding to societal issues and demands, with today’s workforces (and other stakeholders) expecting recognition for a wide range of demographic, social, and even political, differences. Businesses will have to prioritise what the most relevant and important EDI issues are in their context, backed up by good data, and find a reasonable balance that their leaders and managers can understand and meaningfully deal with, as well as being clear on expectations of their people in being tolerant and respectful of difference.  

It’s true that we need to get better at understanding the impact of EDI initiatives and the efficacy of interventions and focus on the key principles to help reduce complexity, but progress has been made. There has been questioning of, for example, unconscious bias training and what works best, and addressing bias in people policies and practices. Too many of the studies cited in the report were from some time ago, and there is a danger that good work in the EDI space is being dismissed in wider generalisations. This can all give fuel to the sceptics and positive progress can be lost when there is still much to be done. It could also further politicise what has, for many, already become something of a political football.

The report cited some the CIPD’s own work and calls for more evidence in the EDI space, but we were not consulted on the report itself. However, as a profession, we should lean into the concerns raised, continue to build evidence for what works and demonstrate positive business outcomes, as well as wider societal benefits. At the same time, it is very important that an influential report like this doesn’t encourage a throwing of the baby out with the bathwater. The government can help pull together clearer and consistent guidance, but also encourage businesses, with leadership from the top down, to continue building inclusive, supportive workplaces that are good for all of us. 

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