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Diversity does not automatically lead to inclusion: how can organizations improve their policies?

Date:04 April 2023
PhD candidate Kyra van Hinsberg
PhD candidate Kyra van Hinsberg

Kyra van Hinsberg, a PhD candidate at FEB, researches the experiences of women in senior management positions. In this blog, she will explain how focusing on diversity without considering inclusion can inhibit positive outcomes of diversity policies and will provide some pointers for how organizations can improve the effectiveness of their diversity practices.

Diversity within organizations has been a hot topic for quite some time. Over time, more and more companies have become aware of the so-called 'business case' of diversity in the workplace. A mix of different types of people within teams and organizations, for example based on gender, age, origin, sexual preference, or education level, can have a positive impact on work performance. It is therefore unsurprising that many organizations and their HR departments put effort into developing diversity policies and initiatives to make their workforce more diverse and to contribute to equal employment opportunities. A noble pursuit, but research shows that diversity and the policies intended to enhance it do not always have the desired effects.

More than just policies

For example, studies do not always find a positive relationship between a diverse workplace and work performance [1]. In addition to lacking positive outcomes, diversity interventions can even have negative unintended consequences. Diversity policies can create the illusion among staff and executives that diversity goals have been met and discrimination is no longer a problem within their organization, diminishing support for new initiatives. Moreover, policies can signal that underrepresented groups need help to succeed, implicitly saying they are less competent [2]. In short, it is clear, from both research and practice, that more diversity and diversity policies in itself do not provide positive outcomes for individuals and organizations, but that more is needed.  

Diversity is often confused with inclusion, while these are two different concepts and diversity does not automatically lead to inclusion. Simply hiring a more diverse workforce (diversity) is not enough if this staff subsequently feels unsafe, undervalued or unwelcome (inclusion). In 2009, Andrés Tapia, president of Diversity Best Practices, wrote: "Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix work" [3]. Inclusion is also described as the key to the positive effects of diversity. Although positive steps are being taken and there are good intentions, many organizational policies still focus too much on diversity instead of on the combination of diversity and inclusion.

Looking beyond recruitment and creating employee networks

How does a company implement diversity policies with interventions that do work? Below I discuss four insights that, according to scientific research, can contribute to more effective diversity policies:

1. Look beyond just the recruitment phase. Insights from the ‘Nederlandse InclusiviteitsMonitor’ (Dutch Inclusion Monitor, [4]), an initiative of, among others, the Diversity Lab at Utrecht University, show that Dutch organizations mainly focus on the influx and recruitment of a diverse workforce, but make fewer policies that focus on the internal mobility, advancement and outflow of employees. At the same time, research clearly shows that many minority groups also experience obstacles in these areas. For example, my own ongoing research shows that women leave senior leadership positions faster than men, even once they have reached the very top of the organizational ladder (C-suite level of Fortune 500 companies). With an integrated diversity policy, an organization better communicates that inclusion spearheads the firm’s agenda, preventing employees from feeling like a token hire, a check mark on the organization’s diversity policy. This contributes to the experience of an inclusive working climate.

2. Encourage (positive) contact between employees. Sociopsychological research shows that contact between individuals from different backgrounds is a good - perhaps the best - way to break down prejudices and stimulate cooperation between groups [2]. In addition, a social network has an important function in feeling included in the workplace and supporting the careers of employees. An organization can contribute to this by encouraging activities where diverse employees can work together in the context of equal status, by launching mentoring programs, or by encouraging employee networks. 

Acknowledging invisible differences and measuring impact

3. Don't forget invisible differences between people. When people think of diversity, they often think of differences in, for example, gender, skin color, age, or visible disabilities. Most policies, such as anti-bias training, are therefore focused on these kinds of 'visible' differences. However, research shows that for an inclusive climate it is also important to consider the invisible differences that play a role in the workplace, like diversity based on socioeconomic background, sexuality, religion, or more 'invisible' disabilities.

4. Measure the impact of diversity policies. The importance of systematic data collection is often forgotten. Measuring and evaluating policy outcomes are essential to be able to steer development. Companies often copy measures taken by other firms without considering whether they are also appropriate for their own organization and goals, and then do not measure whether the policy has the desired effects [5]. A company can measure the effects in the field of diversity and inclusion themselves (see the charter document 'Meten is Weten' of SER [6], in Dutch), but can also opt to use services such as the Dutch Inclusivity Monitor [4], where questionnaires to HR and staff provide better insight into the existing policies and their impact. By measuring the effect of the policies pursued, adjustments can be made and broad support can be gained for more policies and initiatives.


[1] Van Knippenberg, D., De Dreu, C. K., & Homan, A. C. (2004). Work group diversity and group performance: an integrative model and research agenda.  Journal of applied psychology89(6), 1008.

[2] Dover, T. L., Kaiser, C. R., & Major, B. (2020). Mixed signals: The unintended effects of diversity initiatives. Social Issues and Policy Review14(1), 152-181.

[3] Tapia, A. T. (2009). The inclusion paradox: The Obama era and the transformation of global diversity.  Lincolnshire, IL: Hewitt Associates.


[5] Ellemers, N., ┼×ahin, O., S. Jansen, W., & van der Toorn, J. (2018). Naar effectief diversiteitsbeleid: het bouwen van bruggen tussen wetenschap en praktijk. Gedrag & Organisatie, 31(4).