Diversity and Inclusion – Is HR Walking the Talk?

​We are increasingly asked to work on Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) searches around the world. It’s a growing area of focus for many multinational organizations. It is interesting to look at how HR leaders and D&I practitioners around the globe approach and embrace this specialization – from both a “client” and a “candidate” point of view. We note some marked differences depending on the agenda of the individual; and while good progress is being made, we have also found some areas for improvement.

A Specialization on the Rise

D&I is definitely a specialization on the rise. We are seeing good demand for regionally and globally experienced D&I specialists in most major regions. Over the past 1-2 years, we’ve noticed that many companies are moving from a global ‘top down’ approach to more region-specific D&I structures and strategies, which require in-market regional leadership and locally experienced talent. We are seeing encouraging and positive signs that this specialization is quickly becoming more sophisticated and nuanced.

On a global and regional basis, we have noted a “new” generation of D&I practitioners who want to lead their organizations forward with an enlightened D&I strategy. Of late, this often seems to encompass putting more emphasis on the “Inclusion” aspect of the function. A number of HR leaders we have spoken with lately refer to the role as “Inclusion and Diversity” or in one case, simply “Inclusion”. We are seeing D&I gradually moving away from being based more on corporate HQ’s legal and compliance dictated demographics (race/sex/age) lines to a more sophisticated function which seeks to incorporate diversity of “thought” as well as demographic diversity. There appears to be a growing appreciation of the variations from region to region and country to country — with an understanding of the need for each region to be able to provide input into the global strategy.

A Conflicting View from HR

When seeking a new role, global D&I practitioners most often want to know about the company’s commitment to D&I (and sophisticated HR in general); sphere/scope of influence; and their potential ability to make a real difference and to have an impact internally and externally. It’s particularly important to top talent to know that the Diversity and Inclusion function is not just a “lip service” function for companies to ensure they are checking all the necessary compliance boxes; or a passing phase.

As ‘clients’ hiring for their own organizations and teams, HR practitioners sometimes don’t seem to display as much serious commitment to the notion of Diversity and Inclusion. For example, during the job briefing process, we note that D&I tends to receive very little serious attention beyond the odd throw-away line in a recruitment job brief for many companies. When we are asked for “diverse” HR talent, there is generally an assumption that this diversity will be achieved more through traditional demographic means, rather than a desire to inject more creative or non-traditional thinking to a role or team. In particular, we observe that across a number of industries, nowhere is the lack of genuine consideration and interest in D&I more evidenced than in the lack of preparedness of many HR leaders to look at HR talent from outside their own industry.

As a broad generalization, HR leaders often continue to stick to their ‘comfort zone’ when hiring from within their own industry. While we hear from HR talent all the time that their own HR skills are transferrable, (“HR is HR — it’s a transferrable skill across industries”); this often ceases to be the case when the shoe is on the other foot. Senior HR leaders are often quick to point out their own flexibility, adaptability and versatility as talent, which would allow an easy and relatively risk-free industry transition. As hiring managers, the same people often state a very strong preference to see direct competitors from the same industry on a shortlist, with very little desire expressed for a ‘fresh’ approach or a blend of industry expertise.

In our experience, some of the least flexible industries when it comes to hiring from other industries include Oil and Energy; Technology, Financial Services and FMCG/Consumer Packaged Goods. Hospitality and Media/Advertising can also be very insular in their approach. While there are often vast differences between industries, it is surprising that more HR leaders don’t acknowledge that industry knowledge can often (but not always) be learned a lot more easily than other difficult-to-find hard or soft skills.

A Challenge to HR

The formal process of embracing and including those with diverse thinking for the betterment of the organization is a “new frontier” and an area that D&I specialist leaders are very inspired by. Within a corporate environment, diversity in group thinking stems from participating individuals having different life and career experiences. Differences in industry, geographic location as well as company size, culture, structure and operating model are all key determinants in shaping how an individual thinks about and approaches his/her work. And yet, these are the areas where companies, generally led by HR, really don’t want to venture beyond their own industry and narrow competitive set – as much as they plead otherwise when looking at their own career options.

D&I is a rapidly evolving specialization — growing in globalization and sophistication. As a core HR domain, this should be an area for HR to ‘own’ and lead from the front. And yet, we are continually noticing missed opportunities for top HR professionals to ‘walk the talk’ on behalf of their own employers. It will be interesting to see how the D&I landscape continues to evolve going forward.


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