Now More Than Ever - The future of diversity and inclusion leadership: the new HR and the WHY for sustainable progress




Complaining about HR’s work in diversity is rather “on-trend.” Some social media posts and articles call HR too compliance-oriented, too legalistic. Others call it too soft. One commenter complained that HR shot down their brilliant plan “to fire old people and hire young people.” In this case - kudos, HR.

HR is not perfect, but there is a saying: the only people not making mistakes are those doing nothing. HR can’t be accused of idleness. But there are ways to do better, and now more than ever, the HR has a chance to reinvent itself while supporting employees, educating people on all levels of an organization, and ensuring justice and fairness. Yes, CEOs must lead by example, and every employee plays a role in an inclusive climate, but HR is uniquely positioned for bridging multiple approaches to supporting diversity and inclusion.

It is important to make sure that the law is satisfied. And yet, now more than ever, HR must lead organizations beyond compliance, beyond flavor-of-the-month diversity programs, beyond checkboxes. In the process, it has a chance to reinvent itself as a truly People and Culture leader – not the compliance unit of decades ago.

To lead in diversity and inclusion, talent and well-being, HR needs a clear vision. A  clear WHY.

This is more complicated than a cavalier approach may suggest. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging work is multidimensional and complex, and even the “Why” is multifaceted and complex – just like people and cultures.

The many WHYs of diversity and inclusion.

The WHYs of diversity and inclusion range from extrinsic to intrinsic, from data-based to emotion-based. None have been perfect.

The legal “why,” or compliance, focused on laws in regulations, is legitimate – yet rarely inspiring or intrinsically motivating. To motivate the executives to make change, some diversity leaders evoke the business case focused on the benefits of diverse talent to the bottom line. Supported by data from such companies as McKinsey and Deloitte, the business case appealed to some business leaders, yet failed to ignite the widespread inclusion revolution. It failed to connect with the heart. Human motivation is strongly linked to emotion, and diversity leaders focused on social justice, dignity, and belonging appeal to us in ways that the business case alone can’t. But the hot fuel of emotion can also burn us out, and the risk of “crash and burn” initiatives is high. Ironically, what started as emotion-fueled work often turns into compliance, regulation, and going through the motions – until the next cycle.

All the WHYs for diversity have value. But by themselves, they have yet to create a sustainable change – because they only appeal to one side of human complexity.

The WHY for sustainable progress.

Sustainable progress toward diversity and inclusion needs a WHY appealing to our rationality as well as to our emotion, data-based as well as inspirational. It needs to fuel the work long enough to embed inclusion into organization design.

I define this type of WHY as inclusive thriving – for people of all backgrounds, ages, and abilities, as well as for organizations. The inclusive thriving approach integrates the concerns of human dignity, justice and well-being with an understanding of sustainable productivity and maximizing talent. Inclusive cultures are productive cultures; people who feel a sense of belonging are productive people. The work of inclusion benefits individual employees, organizations, and societies - all stakeholders. Using the inclusive thriving framework, HR professionals can guide organizations in developing truly healthy, inclusive, and inspiring cultures. Diversity and inclusion practices are an integral part of such systems, rather than an add-on.

In a system designed for inclusive thriving,

  • valid, unbiased hiring maximizes talent potential within organizations;
  • accountability for outcomes with fairness - and without fear -allows the talent to thrive in the atmosphere of psychological safety;
  • transparency and trust become a norm because employees and executives are ultimately on the same side, the side of an organization thriving as a system.

A system is only sustainable if all parts of it thrive, belong, and contribute. Thriving organizations of the future can be built if today’s HR lays the foundation of a sustainable, multifaced WHY for transforming organizations into inclusive by design, dynamic, and human-focused systems.


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