Defeat Diversity Derailers: Inclusion by Design


Your organization and you personally are committed to diversity, to hiring and retaining top talent of all backgrounds.

But you keep getting derailed.

You started a program to support women’s leadership, but in the same year, your most promising Black women left. You focused on race – before other companies, as you proudly note –  but then the pandemic came, and you lost half of your budget. Parents struggling with work-life life balance cried for help and received it – then came complaints that people with disabilities repeatedly asked for the same flexibility you provided to parents, only to be denied such accommodations as “not reasonable.” So, you started revising the disability policy.

Now your tech people are saying that the only way they could keep up with the increased workload is to start an autism hiring program – they attended a webinar and learned that employees on the autism spectrum are 92 percent more productive than others in similar positions and are genetically predisposed toward invention. You wonder if these are just stereotypes, but want to give it a shot… then remember that the veterans initiative championed by your predecessor was funded and de-funded 5 times in 2 years before getting dissolved.  

No, you have no capacity for autism programs right now. Everyone in HR is overstretched and managers start hyperventilating at the very thought of adjustments and accommodations. Based on history, something is bound to go wrong. You just can’t get a break.

Or maybe you can.

Derailers of diversity efforts

If the dilemma above is painfully familiar, it is because it describes common derailers of diversity efforts. Understanding these derailers helps defeat them.

1) Fear of the unknown combined with the fear of making mistakes can thwart our best intentions. In application to diversity efforts, the fear of “doing it wrong”leads to sticking to “safe-ish” diversities like gender and staying away from the seemingly more complex disability and neurodiversity inclusion and the “awkward” issue of class.  When you struggle with diversity defined as inviting people to the party, and with inclusion defined as asking them to dance, can you really deal with people  who don’t have party clothes, need earplugs to cope with the music, or would rather read an encyclopedia than dance? You can offer an assertiveness program for women, but how do you train an autistic person to fit in? (Preview of Part 2: fitting in is overrated.)

2) Fragmentation of diversity and inclusion work is manifested as separate, often reactive, compliance-driven, and temporary add-on programs – “last year was gender in leadership emphasis, this year it’s racial awareness, next year it’s LGBTQ. Disability…not now, but maybe someday.”

Fragmentation often leads to the sense of “my time will never come” among employees and potential applicants of “forgotten” or intersectional identities, and the loss of talent via the narrowing applicant pool and higher turnover or disengagement. Worse yet, the stop-and-go nature of fragmented efforts, particularly if implemented only in reaction to complaints, results in cynicism toward diversity work along with diversity fatigue.

3) Fatigue that makes diversity work feel like swimming in glue can be specific to diversity programs, especially when they are fragmented and stop-and-go, an aspect of the organizational change fatigue, or a reflection of individual exhaustion and burnout. Multiple sources of fatigue can combine to make individuals more self-protective and less compassionate – and that in turn reduces involvement in diversity initiatives and makes diversity leaders feel like a Sisyphus.

Problems and Solutions.

It may seem that diversity is a problem. In truth, fear, fragmentation, and fatigue are. Diversity – along with inclusion, equity, and belonging - is a solution. Just not in the form of fragmented programs. Inclusion work is more likely to create lasting change through creating radically inclusive organizational systems  - Inclusive Organizational Design.

Inclusive Organizational Design remedies fragmentation and the resulting fatigue by embedding inclusion across organizational processes and systems, creating a lasting change. Using tools and principles already familiar to organizational practitioners and extensively supported by research – such as valid measurement and transparent communication - helps address the fear of unfamiliar.

For example, Inclusive Organizational Design can take the “scary” and even the “special” out of autism inclusion while making organizational processes more fair to all. Organizations committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging can defeat fear, fragmentation, and fatigue - with fairness.  

For example, autism hiring programs largely exist because the standard selection process heavily relies on the unstructured interview, which presents a barrier for autistic job-seekers who are otherwise supremely qualified and would excel at actual job tasks. Autism hiring programs help autistic talent avoid this barrier. However, an instrument that prevents hiring qualified individuals cannot be valid, and unstructured interviews have long been shown to lack validity. Why use an instrument that is a barrier to fair hiring and help some individuals over this barrier, if replacing it with more valid selection mechanisms, such as work samples, job knowledge tests or structured job-relevant interviews, will remove the unfair barrier for all applicants and help ensure hiring the most qualified talent?

Similarly, if the innovation proposal process needs to be adapted for autistic employees because it’s a Byzantine maze of contradictions and unspoken assumptions, the innovation of others is also stifled.  Why not streamline the process for all? If bullying is rampant, why not address it for all?

Inclusive organizational design is not about charity, handouts, or checkboxes. It is about hiring and supporting talent – from the widest talent pool possible. It is not about deciding which groups might be exempt from scaling unfair barriers – it is about removing unfair barriers. Just like the universal design of buildings improves physical accessibility for all, the inclusive organizational design improves productivity and wellbeing for all. In the next installment, I will discuss key do’s and don’ts of inclusion by design.

How can you design a barrier-free workplace? Read the 7 Dos and Don’ts of Inclusion by Design by Ludmila Praslova.


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