By Chantal Sanglier, HR Research Project Manager, Top Employers Institute
By Chantal Sanglier, HR Research Project Manager, Top Employers Institute

Diversity and inclusion: here’s how to get buy-in at executive level

Over the past year, diversity and inclusion has become increasingly important for Top Employers worldwide. Our HR Trends Report 2020, based on a comprehensive survey of more than 1 600 organisations globally, shows that 91% of certified Top Employers now consistently see diversity and inclusion as a key business imperative. While the terms “diversity” and “inclusion” are so often used together, there are important differences between them. This article looks at the distinctions between them, why diversity is not enough and how inclusion is the essential ingredient for efforts in diversity to succeed.

Distinguishing between diversity and inclusion 

“Diversity” incorporates all of the elements that make individuals unique from one another. While there are many differences between human beings, most of us tend to think of the term in the context of a few social categories, such as gender, age or race.  


Diversity is more than age and ethnicity (Source


“Inclusion” can be defined in the workplace as an environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources and can contribute fully to the organisation’s success. 

Put simply, diversity is like being invited to the party, while inclusion is like being asked to join in on the dancefloor. 

Inclusive leadership required 

On its own, diversity is not enough to create any workforce able to make the best use of all its talents.  There are two facets of inclusion that also need to be mastered. 

  • Behavioral inclusion: driving personal transformation in leaders and employees while enabling them to recognise bias and mitigate it. 
  • Structural inclusion: transforming the system by re-shaping talent processes to become fairer and more equitable. 

Both diversity and inclusion practices are becoming more multi-faceted and rely on people, and leaders in particular, to drive both diversity and inclusive change. This explains why our HR Trends Report 2020 shows that nearly 7 in 10 (68%) of Top Employers are training their leaders worldwide to be role models in this area and to inspire teams to drive the improvement initiatives needed. And to encourage accountability at local level, over 6 in 10 (61%) have defined KPIs to hold their local business leaders responsible for meeting both diversity and inclusion targets.  

Why inclusivity is essential 

HR leaders are turning their focus to inclusivity, in part due to changes in the labour market in recent years. These changes include: 

  • More elderly people in the workforce, given greater life expectancy and the abolition of pre-pension and early retirement schemes; 
  • More employees with a physical, psychological and/or mental disability; 
  • More women in the workforce choosing to balance work and caring responsibilities. 

These changes have been compounded by, among other things, the rising number of employees from hired from abroad, the growing internationalisation of business generally and greater freedom of movement. In addition, there is a societal trend beyond the workplace shaping a more inclusive culture, with people increasingly seeking recognition of their individuality and differences. 

A diversity delusion 

Inclusive policies also need to be seen in the context of social background. It is noticeable, for example, that the headquarters of global businesses in capital cities across different countries have more in common with each other than, say, local firms operating in regional cities within the same country.  

This is because even though the former might at first sight appear diverse, there is in reality a distinct lack of diversity: most of the employees at multinational organisations come from highly-educated families, obtained degrees from the best universities, have international work experience, have travelled extensively, and speak (near) fluent English. In short, they already share the same social codes despite being from different countries. 

However, organisations that only check the demographic data on, say, gender and ethnicity may be stuck in a false set of assumptions about diversity, no matter what the numbers say. Some organisations thus believe that their workforce is already diverse, and thus have no need to do any further work. Diversity should not be limited to a narrow set of measures, particularly if there is a dominant corporate culture that, in practice, is not inclusive at all. And sometimes, worryingly, there are no numbers to verify whether diversity and inclusion is practiced.  

Measurement remains a big challenge. Even among Top Employers, barely 51% consistently measure the impact and effectiveness of their diversity programme, while only a slightly higher proportion (56%) evaluate inclusive behaviours among their leadership team. 

What can HR do to improve diversity and inclusion?  

HR leaders know that policy works best when it is underpinned by a clear business rationale. For this to happen policy needs to me more than something done “on the side”. It needs to be central to every aspect of an organisation’s life, with “bottom up” as well as “top down” initiatives to make the most of the opportunities available. 

Beyond gender diversity, organisations can look at age diversity to attract more millennials – 93% of Top Employers now have initiatives in place to employ younger staff - as well as building better working environments for seniors and those with disabilities. To address inclusion, they will need policies to pay more attention to diversity of thought. Our data shows that 78% of Top Employers now have such a policy, rather than simply filling up quotas of under-represented groups. 

More specific actions to foster better diversity and inclusion could include: 

  • Putting together a strong content calendar, communicated clearly throughout the year to keep diversity and inclusion high on the corporate agenda. 
  • Conducting a work experience study among certain target groups, to understand better the obstacles to further progress. 
  • Keeping clear sight of outcomes, actions and follow-ups, even when action plans arising from engagement or pulse surveys are business owned. 
  • Backing and facilitating key networks (for example, to promote female talent) with resources. 
  • Monitoring and evaluating not only the inflow of employees, but also their internal mobility and outflow. For example, if an inflow of diverse talent was followed by a rapid outflow, due to a lack of acceptance by colleagues. 

There is a clear dividend for any organisation that can create a difference by having both a diverse workforce and an inclusive corporate culture. To have both greatly increases the chance that a business will a competitive advantage in getting, growing and keeping the best people. 

The need for a business case 

Without a clear business need, it is difficult to get buy-in at executive level, without which inclusivity efforts will have limited impact and little added value as a result. Thus, it is essential to ensure that the business interest is central to any diversity and inclusion strategy and related efforts. The business case describes the concrete diversity need of an organisation and forms the foundation for all internal and external expressions. It can be used to convince managers and employees of the benefits of diversity and inclusion. It emphasises the added value for an organisation of having an ethnically and culturally diverse combined workforce and of inclusive corporate culture.  

The added value can roughly be broken up into two categories; economic and social value.  

Economic added value: 

  • Better able to attract and retain (top) talent 
  • Increased competitiveness and innovation 
  • More informed decision making 
  • Better able to respond to needs and expectations of a diverse clientele 
  • Access to new markets 
  • Greater ability to adapt to changes 
  • Improved public image 
  • Increased profits 
  • Improved employee and customer retention rates 

Social added value: 

  • Higher employee satisfaction 
  • More engaged and loyal employees 
  • Increased collaboration between colleagues 
  • Improved conflict management 

These benefits of diversity and inclusion also enable an organisation to stand out in the market and have a head start over its competitors. Conversely, any organisation that does not have an eye on diversity and inclusion efforts ignores potential opportunities for growth.