What are the challenges in engaging a diverse workforce?

Need to know:

  • Efforts to increase diversity within the workforce are important, but inclusion and engagement are the rest of the puzzle.
  • Using data can help employers target engagement efforts to a diverse set of employees, but short of this, organisations should simply aim to be flexible and accommodating.
  • Employees will thrive in an open, honest and communicative environment, in which they can share in and learn from others’ lived experiences.

For many employers, increasing diversity means changing recruiting practices, offering alternative working arrangements, or instituting sponsorship and mentoring programmes.

While these initiatives help to create a diverse workforce, this is only half of the challenge. Moving from diversity to true inclusion means creating an environment in which all employees can thrive.

Karen Thomson, HR consultant at Fujitsu, says: “It’s about really building that engagement by creating an inclusive environment, where people can just be completely themselves at work; they don’t need to hide who they are, they can bring the creativity and innovation that being themselves allows. It’s the whole organisation’s responsibility to create that environment, to make that real, tangible change.”

Segment and tailor

Organisations are now in a position to harness more data than ever before, explains Mark Ramsook, senior director and sales leader at Willis Towers Watson.

“The challenge a lot of organisations have faced historically is they’ve not really known their own population well enough, and have been afraid to ask questions to understand the needs of the workforce, hence that more traditional one-size-fits-all approach,” he explains.

Using the available employee data and surveys to build an understanding of the different groups that comprise a specific workforce, what they need, and where there might be pockets of disengagement, can help target an employer’s efforts. This might boil down to something as simple as understanding that specific groups prefer certain forms of communication.

“First, it’s about really understanding the workforce, where everyone sits and how that links up, to be able to remove any barriers,” says Thomson. “Then also really getting to know [the] employees through their lived experience, and giving them the opportunity to engage and talk about these things.”

Employers could use round tables, employee networks or town halls to create dialogue and give people the opportunity to learn about each other’s needs and experiences, and understand how various initiatives and policies are being received across the full span of the workforce.

Difficult discussions

Opening the lines of communication comes hand in hand with tackling issues that might previously have been seen as difficult or taboo, such as neurodiversity, sexuality, disability and race.

Employers should facilitate rather than shy away from these conversations, such as through reverse mentoring or using senior role models, providing not only a safe space for staff with the same lived experiences, but also to increase awareness among the wider workforce.

Hephzi Pemberton, founder and chief executive officer of Equality Group, says: “Take the time to understand where different employees are going to be coming from, what they’re looking for in their career, [and how that] evolves.

“Having really open conversations and dialogues with employees is really important; have people equipped to have those conversations. Sharing stories and case studies is really valuable.”

Creating these spaces constitutes a clear commitment by the employer to celebrate and support diversity in the everyday.

Flexible accommodations

While a broad-ranging set of benefits and engagement strategies, tailored to meet the needs of every group, might be the ideal, this may not be practical in reality. Instead, employers can consider how best to be flexible and accommodating, allowing employees to shape their own experience to fit their circumstances.

This might simply mean increasing manager awareness and the willingness to adapt in small ways, such as allowing women experiencing the menopause to move to a cooler location.

“Half the challenge here for organisations is, while [they] can’t please everyone, being cognizant that people have different needs, and [their] workforce is a broad spectrum of individuals,” says Ramsook.

A deeper commitment to alternative working arrangements can, however, mean addressing perceptions of working life, says Pemberton.

“[Work is becoming] a lot less transactional, and much more relational; employers that can get into that mindset of building a partnership with their employees rather than simply just a contractual engagement are really going to benefit.”

Many of these initiatives, such as flexible and remote working, can be used to the benefit of all employees, moving away from the sense that an employer is making accommodations for certain members of staff, and towards a world in which work is simply shaped around the individual.

“By making this the norm and a way of working [that is] open to everyone, [employers are] really fielding that inclusive environment,” says Thomson. “It enables everyone to be themselves at work regardless of protected characteristics.”

Fundamental commitments

Whether changing working practices or opening a dialogue, change needs to be fundamental and pervasive, rather than superficial, or employees will disengage.

“It’s a core part of the business, above and beyond the window dressing that some organisations still adopt,” adds Ramsook. “The big shift we’ve seen is with organisations that have reviewed their purpose, values and mission statement. That’s a great opportunity for employers to [make] a very defined statement of intent around their approach to diversity and inclusion.”

Teresa Boughey, founder and chief executive officer at Jungle HR, adds: “It’s not the role of one, it’s the contribution of many that will champion an inclusive environment. Provide people with the opportunity to understand why diversity and inclusion is important to them.”

Making this kind of deep, structural shift means understanding the starting point, says Boughey: “It’s absolutely vital that organisations diagnose their diversity and inclusion status, rather than hooking onto what is flavour of the month for other organisations.”


Rather than appreciating that an employer has ticked a box or met a quota, employees will engage when they know they are being treated with fairness and respect.

To ensure that this message comes across, and that fundamental changes within an organisation are being broadcast fully, transparency can be key.

For some organisations, this means publishing pay and progression data beyond the legal requirements; for others, it means making their diversity and inclusion efforts a public commitment.

In all instances, honesty is paramount, particularly in a world in which failings or superficial commitments to inclusion can quickly be outed via social media, news outlets and job listing sites.

“[Employers] have to own it,” explains Boughey. “There’s no point in hiding away from any of this, because employees see it and experience it every day.”

In addition to an honest appraisal of the failings, actions and aims in an employer’s diversity and inclusion strategy, a transparent and public approach to improvement is likely to engage a diverse range of both current and future employees.

“The difference is [having] clear, measurable targets, and consequences to not reaching those targets; that’s when you see things start to shift,” Pemberton concludes. “[Inclusion] is absolutely critical to business strategy, and organisations that take it that seriously, as they would do for other business decisions, will really start to see results.”

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