Why we still need evidence for inclusion and diversity

The business and moral case for diversity has long been made. With a widespread belief that diversity and inclusion is good for business, and is simply the right thing to do, why do we need to continue to investigate the evidence on diversity and inclusion?

Taking an evidence-based approach

Whilst organisations are increasingly paying attention to diversity, the pace of change is slow. Its clear barriers to equality still exist- and these barriers are not easy to dismantle. So, we still need evidence based recommendations that will guide our efforts. Our recent report, Diversity and inclusion at work: facing up to the business case, brings together a huge body of research (full details of the papers we appraised can be found in the research’s technical report). However, we found little randomised and controlled research on intervention effectiveness, barring diversity training; we need more research in this area to test what sort of targeted action really works.

The case for diversity

Next up is the evidence for the diversity business case. Of course, we want to find support for the idea that diversity is good for business- not least because there’s a risk that negative results might deter organisations from pursuing diversity (Eagly, 2016). But, some research highlights that the diversity-performance relationship is not consistent across industry, amongst other factors (Joshi and Roh, 2009). In other words, context is hugely important, and broad brush claims about diversity outcomes hide a more nuanced picture.

Whilst we know that employers should be diverse and inclusive, we still need to understand the outcomes of diversity, and perhaps more importantly, when we might expect these outcomes. Work is a complex business, and there are many practices and processes that influence the impact of diversity. We need to continue to research this relationship, so we understand the individual, organisational and wider societal factors that allow everyone to thrive.

Broadening the business case

We’ve talked about performance outcomes for organisations- what about employees? There’s a huge amount of research devoted to the diversity business case, so we hear far less about how diversity can benefit individuals.

Unsurprisingly, research highlights that subtle and direct discrimination is harmful to employees . Businesses must have a zero tolerance approach to discrimination, but beyond this basic obligation to provide a safe place to work, there are many positive benefits to be gained from taking a more active approach to diversity.

Promoting inclusion, where everyone is valued and can participate at work, will have real benefits for employees (and for the organisation, through retention). Let’s strengthen the case for diversity by having a broader view in our research and practice; everyone should reap the benefits. The people profession have a great opportunity to bring this human perspective back into the diversity conversation.

It seems that there’s been a focus on proving diversity is a good thing for business- which has been necessary to galvanise change. But, when we increase diversity representation, we don’t automatically decrease some of the challenges faced by under-represented groups at work. We need to shift our focus and continue to build on the evidence base on what works, for when, and for who. By continuing to investigate how to tackle inequality and make work inclusive, we will see real, sustainable change in businesses.

[1] EAGLY, A.H. (2016) When passionate advocates meet research on diversity, does the honest broker stand a chance? Journal of Social Issues. Vol 72, No 1. pp199–222.

[2] JOSHI, A. and ROH, H. (2009) The role of context in work team diversity research: a meta-analytic review. Academy of Management Journal. Vol 52, No 3. pp599–627.

[3] JONES, K.P., PEDDIE, C.I., GILRANE, V.L. et al. (2016) Not so subtle: a meta-analytic investigation of the correlates of subtle and overt discrimination. Journal of Management. Vol 42, No 6. pp1588–1613

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