Geffrye Parsons, Founder & CEO, The Inclusion Imperative

Through Geffrye DE&I consultancy practice, The Inclusion Imperative, Geffrye helps commercial organisations to build leadership capabilities and harness the power of inclusion as a key strategy for well-being, organisational learning, and superior business outcomes. Widely regarded as a thought leader and driver of positive change for workplace inclusion, Geff promotes a holistic, intersectional approach. He challenges received wisdom and practices to facilitate a culture shift and encourage business learning, drawing on 35 years of experience in front office executive roles, based in the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Netherlands, with leading international financial and professional services organisations. Geff is a respected writer, speaker, and facilitator, having worked with organisations in the fields of financial services, media, energy, law, advertising, publishing, logistics, government agencies, and others, spoken at multiple conferences globally, hosted a regular podcast series, and provided published content for multiple publications and online channels.


With the energising influence of a milestone like Pride Month now behind us, and with the inevitable lull of summer vacations ahead, most organisational efforts to promote Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) will now inevitably go into temporary hibernation for a couple of months.

But, as I wrote in a separate LinkedIn article a few weeks ago, DEI actually requires a year-round commitment. So, with that in mind, this brief period of relative inactivity can still be used constructively – by taking a step back and considering why, in the eyes of some, DEI is not achieving its aims optimally, and therefore how it can be delivered more impactfully.

There are many aspects to the required course correction. However, it is evident that, for some people and organisations, DEI will never be pursued as a priority, because they view it as tantamount to a process of reverse discrimination that undermines meritocracy. The recent US Supreme Court decision to ban affirmative action is seen by them as vindicating this stance.

Happily, though, there is an upside to this trend: what is happening is, effectively, a self-filtering flight to quality.

Those organisations that continue to pursue DEI are likely to be the positive actors with whom we need to collaborate, to promote further progress toward inclusive workplace practices. And therefore, it is incumbent on us, as DEI practitioners, to ensure that we add the value they need to help make this happen – through clarity of observation and self-reflection about what those organisations, and we in supporting them, can do better.

From a macro standpoint, one key observation is that, too often, organisations approach DEI wholly wrongly: by framing it as a problem rather than an opportunity. This means that they tend to commit to DEI only from a ‘glass-half-empty’ perspective, treating it as purely downside risk mitigation – adopting a ‘compliance’ mentality and focusing primarily on grievance avoidance.

This approach totally misses the upside potential that DEI offers, as the source of pollinating synergies and future-proofing: fostering innovation and creative problem-solving and interrupting the reflexes of groupthink and unconscious bias to achieve superior risk identification and management.

This underselling of DEI often manifests itself in two primary ways, both of them adverse:

  1. an overemphasis on the D rather than the I; and
  2. a lack of strategic alignment or positioning of DEI internally.

Prioritising diversity over inclusion is a common mistake. They are not the same thing at all. Diversity creates only representation, not inclusion: generating a quantitative, rather than qualitative, body count. As such, diversity can be achieved by the sort of quota-oriented hiring practices that the US ban on affirmative action aims to prevent.

Certainly, if DEI is seen as downside risk management only, then meeting people-volume targets in this way can be a tempting practice for organisations. However, if the potential value of such diversity (of perspective, experience, heuristics) is not unlocked and empowered by overlaying inclusive workplace practices, then the upside potential which underpins the business case for DEI will be entirely foregone.

That business case has been demonstrated by copious amounts of research, old and new – and it all points to a need to see DEI as a core part of delivering the business strategy. When CEOs really understand the impact this has on the bottom line, they should be advocating for embedding it firmly in the front office, reporting directly to the executive. Contrarily, too often DEI gets parked in HR, where the approach – typically, defensive and transactional, rather than developmental and transformational – has the effect of implicitly downgrading its importance in the eyes of many key internal stakeholders.

A 2023 survey published by WebMD Health Services, covering 2,000 adults working full time in the US for organisations with 2,500 or more US-based employees, zeroed in on this anomaly. Only one-sixth of respondents believed that inclusion efforts should be left to HR; more than three-quarters opined that the job of promoting and implementing inclusive practices should actually reside with neither HR nor executive leaders but with people managers. The fact that this is not typically how inclusive practices are facilitated in organisations underpins the consequential view of 62% of respondents, that DEI programmes in their organisations are currently ineffective.

The upshot of all this is that, while HR should, of course, provide support for DEI efforts, it is the executive team that should provide both (hard, not dotted, line) stewardship and overt messaging about strategic alignment – while delegating (on a resourced and prioritised basis) the day-to-day delivery to the micro-culture creators of the workplace: the people managers, supervisors and team leads.

Too often, organisations fall short of this joined-up thinking. Instead, the executive merely provides worthy words, rather than resources or strategic oversight; the people managers perceive it not as a priority, because they are not given the bandwidth or resources to deliver it (and also because their people management responsibilities often arise from the operation of the Peter Principle, meaning that they may not yet have developed the skill set needed for it); and HR is left to try to execute it, in the face of a front office team that treats it as a compliance-oriented ‘necessary evil’ – investing their physical presence, but not their hearts and minds, in the process.

To address this, it is critical that the whole DEI initiative in any organisation be re-positioned as strategically aligned to, and a core part of, the business – no longer viewed as a support function or even a cost centre. For good measure, it may even be worthwhile to undertake a re-brand to emphasise this strategic alignment – for example, by focusing on the I rather than the D, and perhaps expanding it to be something like Inclusion, Improvement & Innovation.

This re-positioning will have other natural remedial effects, too. As a business priority, less reliance on its delivery should be placed not only on HR but also on activist staff volunteers, such as those involved in running Employee Resource Groups or staff networks. And the whole approach should morph away from a tactical, transactional approach to one which is more strategic and transformational.

This shift requires the organisation to overcome the short-term mentality trap into which it is easy to fall in this context – particularly, perhaps, for those in industries for which financial and operational results are reported quarterly. In the context of DEI, focusing on immediate outcomes merely skews them towards diversity rather than inclusion, and can lead to performative box-checking in the form of activities which meet transactional needs (e.g. one off events or communications campaigns). Without playing the long game – for this is about changing culture, which cannot happen overnight – such efforts often fail to dovetail into a broader scheme of progressive initiatives which is designed to facilitate transformation on a coordinated basis.

Similarly, re-calibrating the responsibility structure for facilitating DEI delivery with an eye on strategic alignment means clarifying a simple point: ultimately, DEI is about good leadership, and building the skills necessary for that. As a core part of the business strategy, it should therefore no longer be seen as different from any other form of leadership skills training and should require the same organisational and individual mindset.

For this reason, it is sensible both to integrate inclusive practices into other leadership training and to show the relevance and benefit of it to those receiving that training – for example, a line manager can come to understand how running meetings in an inclusive, equitable way can promote better outcomes from them.

It is also useful to de-personalise the messaging as far as possible, in order to avoid triggering knee-jerk defensive reactions – for example, by stressing the role of leaders in addressing systemic, rather than individual, biases (for example, ones impacting individual recruitment, onboarding, and advancement). Ultimately, DEI is about facilitating behavioural and systemic change – not about being ‘right’, or shaming individuals or groups (which paradoxically usually has the effect of entrenching rather than eradicating adverse attitudes).

Finally, the role of the Head of DEI needs both a re-brand – to emphasise the alignment with business strategy – and, in many cases, an overhaul. The flight to quantity over quality triggered by the murder of George Floyd made the subsequent pendulum swing away from a commitment to DEI all but inevitable for many organisations. That cannot be allowed to be repeated; DEI should never be used as lip service.

To prevent that, the role of Head of DEI now requires skills and competencies beyond the traditional remit of CHROs, to include additional capabilities in areas such as change management, business innovation, motivation, community engagement, and cultural awareness. No doubt this can present challenges given the lack of clear regulation or qualifications for the practice of DEI, especially when seen as a strategic imperative. ISO 30415:2021 has existed since 2021, but the guidelines it sets out are geared primarily towards promoting diversity in typical HR management processes, like remuneration, recruitment, induction, and Learning & Development – not strategic business alignment.

What is clear is that the inherent value of DEI remains demonstrable and undiminished, and – in an unprecedentedly VUCA world – the need for it has never been greater for organisations looking to future-proof themselves. So let us now grasp the nettle to start making the critical changes needed to allow DEI to take flight fully with organisations, and in so doing help them build a brighter, more sustainable future.

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