Global consultant Rita Trehan has spent more than 20 years bringing HR into the spotlight in various organizations from Fortune 200 to startups. She believes firmly in the power of strategic HR and the concept that HR – diversity and inclusion (D&I) included – is not solely the responsibility of the HR departments, that inclusivity and progress works best when it involves everyone from the top down.
Here Rita makes a case for building a business culture where diversity and inclusion plays an integral part:
Should the role of the diversity and inclusion professional be part of HR?
I think most organisations struggle with that a little bit, the question of “Does it sit within the People function because it’s about the people, seems to make sense, but the reality is that the area itself touches many parts of the organisation, as an example it has an impact on how your external brand and external stakeholders view your company?
So, the short answer is, I don’t believe Diversity and Inclusion should be siloed within the HR department. We’ve evolved past that era where it was solely within the purview of the Human Capital division because it had something to do with the workforce directly. We now understand that D&I isn’t just an initiative on HR’s docket: it makes good business sense and, quite frankly, it’s the right thing to do for both your people and your profit margin and that its reach is so encompassing that.
I worked for an organisation last year where one of my recommendations was to move the Diversity and Inclusion function outside of HR. Ideally, I would have it report directly to the CEO because it is something that needs to be championed from the top. As we expand more easily into a global workforce, we must understand the strategic business opportunities that lie within coming together to accomplish our collective goals.
Where do you think D&I should sit within an organisation?
D&I could be placed anywhere at the top of the organisation really because it crosses so many boundaries. I’m of the view that one function can’t – and shouldn’t – own it; it needs to be embedded in the culture. Otherwise, there are too many factions of the company on a collision course: various functions such as HR, D&I, sustainability, investor relations, or external relations will all be trying to do different things in the name of Diversity and Inclusion. This makes it harder to weave a cohesive D&I thread through the organisation.
On the onset, one department should drive its standards and practices throughout the organization and be held accountable for results. It’s a business imperative, which means it should be treated as such. But inevitably, I believe it’s hard to see how it can continue as a standalone function. I know that’s what happens today, but it’s really something which must be embedded in everything a business does. In order to weave D&I as a standard business practice, you’ll need to have it embedded in the culture from how we work together as colleagues to reviewing suppliers’ and investors’ policies. I think it’s a cultural mindset which drives profitability rather than a nice-to-have soft skill.
Once you see the power of people working together without fear of segregation or persecution, you’ll witness the true impact of D&I. Bias and cultural backlash stand in the way of business progress and, to be quite frank, it’s costing businesses a fortune in lost productivity. Diversity and Inclusion is a pathway to progress and it’s time more companies understood its importance.
If you take away the actual ‘function’, who is responsible for making things happen?
It’s the responsibility of the CEO to make things happen from the top, to lead and model the type of organisation and culture that they want. They drive the expectation through their leadership and make it an expectation of workplace interactions and corporate performance.
Inevitably, it becomes part of how everyone in the company conducts business between themselves and with those externally. This leads to an expectation of diversity with everything connected with the business: suppliers become more diverse, the customer base expands due to a feeling of inclusion, and a wider expanse of shareholders come calling.
I think if businesses thought of D&I in that way they’d be driving for results throughout the organisation. It just makes good business sense.
Are you advocating for a change in company culture in most cases?
Yes, I’m a big believer in it.
How do you convince senior leaders of what it means to have a truly diverse and inclusive culture?
First, I use statistics to show business leaders that the more diverse and inclusive companies – especially their more successful competitors – outperform companies that aren’t. Then, I show them the rich diversity of their own customer base.
Many companies today are focused on personalisation and customer-centric strategies but very few consider D&I as part of that strategy. It’s a shame, really: if you don’t make the effort to understand your customers and help them feel you comprehend their needs, how can you be successful in winning and keeping their business?
When I talk to leadership teams, I ask them to look around the table. At a recent client meeting, one leader described his leadership team today as “stale, pale, and male.” His point was the critical importance of evolving so that the leadership team is more reflective of the customers they serve. I tell clients they must embed it [diversity] in the culture and standard business practices so they can hold people accountable for it. It means considering D&I in everything they do.
I think the key point to remember about diversity and inclusion is that we want to get a point where it’s not even a consideration anymore. It’s not about pointing differences out and “accepting” them; it’s about arriving at a place where it’s considered a business strength.
Have you seen any progress over the last few years?
Yes. We’ve seen more women on boards and a lot more companies investing in LGBTI+ initiatives. It’s also been interesting to see large companies campaign for a voice in terms of government legislation and approaches. So yes, there’s progress, but we need to do more. And we’ve got to start early. We’ve got to start with young people.
What role does legislation play in driving the agenda forward faster?
In terms of the gender pay gap, it has brought awareness to the issue. But people spend too much time, including HR teams, trying to justify their data, rather than trying to figure out the root cause. You can’t solve a problem if you just look at the surface. For that reason, we haven’t seen much movement from it. There’s much more work to be done.
When companies say they’re unable to improve diversity, they cite a lack of talent as the main reason. Do you think the case is they’re just not recruiting in the right way?
The talent shortage is only a reality in certain aspects; the main issue is that they’re not using D&I as part of their Talent Acquisition strategy. This is what I mean when I say lack of diversity and inclusion knowledge as a business practice stands in the way of progress and profitability.
Number one, they’re probably not trying to look in all the places to attract the diverse talent they seek.
Number two, where the diverse talent does exist in the organisation, they’re probably not developing it. They are not necessarily opening their eyes to internal possibilities.
We’ve got five generations working together now and a literal melting pot of talented individuals who – if brought together in an environment that sees their differences as a benefit rather than a threat – could transform the world of business as we know it.
Do companies need to change their recruitment policies?
Yes, but it’s not just about recruitment. How inclusive are meetings? Whose voices get heard and whose don’t? When we’re designing something, a new product or a new service, who do we automatically think of and who have we excluded? It’s about asking questions and raising awareness; I think that’s the best way to do it. I don’t know that training or policy moves the needle enough without experiencing, seeing and feeling it.
What do you think of networks? Are they productive?
If they’re set up correctly they can be extremely valuable. They allow individuals to come together and celebrate successes, exchange ideas, or address issues or frustrations they may have. They can be great support networks for mentoring and coaching individuals.
They can also be effective when both employee-created and employee-led. These types of networks are much more successful than some of the company-wide initiatives for creating, for example, an LGBTI group, or a women’s group.
Should they have senior leader sponsorship as well?
Senior leadership should encourage it. Individuals who have been excluded in the past, for whatever reason, have a really important role to play in sharing those stories. I absolutely think that senior leaders need to champion it because if they don’t, nothing happens.
There’s talk about possibly making initiatives or ways of working accountable in terms of remuneration. What is your view?
That’s been going on for a while. Does it change behaviour? Maybe. If the CEO positions it as a key performance indicator, not a quota, then it can drive change. I’ve been part of an organisation that set a target to have women make up 50% of a certain level of leadership, and they achieved it because they viewed it in the same way as their other key performance metrics.
Have you seen more diversity on boards?
I think we’re seeing more representation of women in boardrooms, but it could be better and I’m not sure I see a lot of inclusion. I think the problem is sometimes we think that the two are intrinsically linked, but they are not. Diversity is all about having people from different backgrounds and cultures. Inclusion is about people feeling respected, feeling like they are part of the organisation and that their voice is being heard. People don’t want to feel ignored.
If you could wave a magic wand, what would you do?
First, I’d make sure the CEO is living and demonstrating D&I on a day-to-day basis. I have a great example of this from a company I worked for. At the start of an investor meeting, instead of putting up their business results and safety statistics, he started with the diversity data because he believed it was important.
I think it starts from there, what you consider to be important and then where you put focus your attention to make that happen. That’s number one. And obviously, if I had a magic wand, I would have us be at a place, where we are not still talking about what needs doing, we would have done it.
Second, I would engage all the stakeholders. You can’t affect change unless you create some movement. I would get people really doing it well to shout about it and to invest in talking with young people, schools and colleges about why this is important. And not just tokenism, that won’t change it.
Then I would encourage companies to do real deep dives on their culture, not engagement surveys, regularly.
What does that look like in practice?
Ask people to really talk through what they think about things. Most engagement surveys are trying to get what the company wants to know. It’s not what people want to tell you. It’s about asking employees how easy it is to get your job done? What are the elephants in the room that nobody talks about? Ask thought-provoking questions. We’ve had examples where a company says how great they are where I find a massive disconnect due to silos in the organisation. Where there are silos, how can one draw value from teamwork?
Finally, what advice would you give to organisations?
I would encourage organisations to look hard at what they’re trying to do with this. In a business world where it’s no longer about functioning in silos or working in a singular fashion, D&I is a business imperative. If we could get everybody thinking about owning it, asking the right questions, we’ll see real change.