How do you ensure a successful diversity policy?

Men and women, old and young, introvert and extrovert, higher and lower levels of education... Diversity in the workplace goes way beyond just ethnic and cultural or religious differences. Despite all the academic research, however, it is not always possible to implement diversity in practice. Why is this? “There are quite a few naive ideas and misconceptions about diversity and the extent to which managers should comply with the diversity policy outlined by the top and HRM,” says Professor Katleen De Stobbeleir. Together with two colleagues, she has developed a theoretical framework which charts the impact of managers on the success of an organisation's diversity policy


“Some people are convinced that diversity within an organisation will fail by definition and that it's best to level out the existing diversity. This is naive. However, it is equally naive to think that diversity will automatically lead to better performance. As always, research has shown that the truth is more nuanced: although diversity can lead to better performance and greater creativity and innovation, important conditions apply when it comes to maximising its potential.”

According to Katleen, equally common misconceptions exist about the role of managers: “People often think that a diversity policy can only succeed if the top, HRM and managers are perfectly aligned. However, this doesn't appear to be true either.”

Inclusion as a yardstick

The literature mentions various criteria for evaluating the outcome of a diversity policy. This time, inclusion was chosen: “In order for diversity to succeed, you need a policy which works towards an inclusive organisation – an organisation in which all individuals, from both the majority and the minority, feel that they can simply be themselves and which offers scope for uniqueness and different perspectives.”

Role of managers

How is the effectiveness of a diversity policy influenced by managers? What impact do they have on the sense of inclusion perceived by their staff? Katleen and her colleagues examined the various situations found in organisations when you look at the way in which managers implement the diversity policy and the associated practices and how they weigh up the various aspects against operational efficiency. They summarised the results in a framework consisting of four models:

  1. Deletion: managers ignore the diversity policy and mainly focus on operational efficiency.
  2. Compartmentalisation: managers interpret the diversity policy on a selective and ad hoc basis. Operational efficiency takes priority.
  3. Aggregation: managers recognise the added value of the diversity policy but are critical and implement the policy without losing sight of operational efficiency.
  4. Integration: managers implement the diversity policy and the associated practices to the letter, even at the expense of operational efficiency.

Danger of assimilation

It should be obvious that deletion does not contribute to a sense of inclusion. In organisations which work in accordance with this model, however well-meaning the diversity policy may be, it will remain an empty concept in mission and vision documents or sustainability reports.

There is also significant room for improvement in the case of compartmentalisation, explains Katleen: “In this kind of model, managers will mainly translate the diversity policy into specific actions for minorities, for example by only sending female or ethnic minority employees to diversity training. If these target groups assimilate, they think that everything will be OK. But if your goal is assimilation, you would be better off with a homogeneous organisation. This is because we notice that individuals from minority groups who are asked to adapt to the majority don't perform as well. This is something you want to avoid. After all, if you don't make the most of the unique skills of these minorities, you will lose the potential of diversity.” 

All heading in the same direction?

“As I already mentioned, quite a few organisations think that integration is the ideal model. The top issues a diversity policy, HRM links this with various practices and managers carry them out. Half of the team should be female? In an integration model, managers will make every effort to achieve this target figure – blindly, without focusing on the consequences. However, this approach does not necessarily lead to greater inclusion.”

In the most inclusive companies, managers succeed in finding a healthy balance between diversity-related efforts and operational efficiency. The study shows that these kinds of companies work in accordance with the aggregation model.

“If you imagine that an organisation has set a quota, for example for women or ethnic minorities, managers will make every effort to find suitable candidates for a vacancy. However, if the candidates in the target group don't satisfy the criteria, they won't recruit just anyone to make sure they reach their quota. People who aren't particularly suitable for a job won't perform very well. These managers will then argue for why it is better not to take on the candidate in question, or will join forces with HRM to look for ways to offer training or supervision to ensure that the employee in question performs well nonetheless.”

Respect without taboos

“In order for a diversity policy to succeed,” says Katleen, “it is therefore important to have both top-down and bottom-up processes and for every measure to be open to discussion. If a decision is then reached, everyone can relate to it precisely because this discussion took place.”

“Inclusive companies are generally also companies which have few taboos relating to the superficial, external signs of diversity, such as hijabs,” she continues. “These are organisations in which team spirit and respect for other opinions prevail. In these kinds of companies, everyone in the organisation can approach the top with critical comments, but on the other hand the top can also make the organisation open to discussion.”

Odd one out

Does she have any tips for managers? “One recommendation which follows directly from our study is not to focus on the assimilation of minority groups. From time to time, create situations in which staff from the majority group can experience for themselves how it feels to be the odd one out. Most people have never experienced this because of the relatively low level of labour mobility in Europe, but this kind of experience can lead to greater understanding and empathy.”    

Smarties on the table

Furthermore, as an organisation, and therefore also as a manager, it is important to have an open attitude. According to Katleen, there are various ways to tackle this. “For example, there is reverse coaching which involves newcomers supervising their more experienced colleagues instead of the other way round. Or you can try being deliberately open to experiments and ideas which at first glance might run counter to common practices. As a manager, why not try saying ‘Yes, why not?’ a bit more often.”

You can also work towards inclusion in a light-hearted way: “For example, I worked with a company where the managers were aware that the organisation wasn't inclusive towards introverted employees. Only the loudest voices were heard during meetings. If you get everyone to say something at the beginning of the meeting, this reduces the barrier to speaking later on. And every time someone spoke, they had to take a Smartie from a bowl and put it on the table in front of them. That soon made it clear who was talking a lot and who wasn't.”

All in the mind

“Did you know there is such a thing as implicit bias – subconscious prejudices and often subtle associations between a group of people and a stereotype? Mention engineer or surgeon and most of us immediately think it's a male role, mention Germans and we immediately assume they are good planners etc. These prejudices and associations are not entirely innocent, so it's important to be aware of them. Thankfully, more and more companies are trying to combat them. We have noticed that implicit bias training is gaining in popularity.”

“Quite a few companies stick to quotas – this many men and women, this many staff with a different ethnic background, for example. But whether a diversity policy ultimately succeeds depends on mindset. Changes in attitude and behaviour aren't achieved by target figures but by means of active interventions, and they don't even have to be all that radical,” concludes Katleen.

Diversity and agility
Companies and managers work within a volatile and unpredictable context. The message is that it's important to be able to adapt quickly, but with a clear vision and strategy. If you wish to remain agile, not only do you need to embrace innovation, you also need the skills to retain highly diverse employees. In this sense, diversity is not a nice-to-have but a genuine must-have. Our Centre for Excellence in Leading Agile Organisations bridges the gap between leadership, innovation, organisational behaviour and strategy, with a specific focus on diversity, collaboration and flexibility.  

Source: The paper ‘How leaders shape the impact of HR's diversity practices on employee inclusion’ was published in The Human Resource Management Review (2018) and can be requested from the authors.

About the authors: Katleen De Stobbeleir is a partner and associate professor in Leadership & Coaching at Vlerick Business School, where she also heads the Leadership & Coaching research centre, and a research fellow at the University of Leuven. Claudia Buengeler is a professor at the University of Kiel (Germany). Hannes Leroy is an assistant professor at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (the Netherlands).

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