Blog Post

It’s in the subtleties

  • by Snéha Khilay
  • 21 Mar, 2018

With the recent media coverage of sexual harassment, negative, hostile behaviour towards women at work is generally deemed as overt sexism, even abuse and therefore unacceptable.  However, the subtle and no less insidious sexism continues to fester in the background. There are comments and behaviours, whether made by men or women, that devalue women.  An exercise used in training courses titled 'Acceptable Continuum', provides statements that are to be categorised as either 'acceptable' or 'unacceptable'.  There are concerns where in some instances participants become indignant that comments such 'I am going through a blond moment'* or referring to women as 'girls' is generally considered 'unacceptable'.  This indignation is often verbalised by comments along the lines of 'This is PC gone mad', 'We are walking on an eggshell culture', 'I can't say anything now??' etc.

 There is a tendency in some instances for colleagues to use certain but subtly negative language patterns, either out of habit or because it has become unconsciously ingrained into office culture and banter, that it becomes acceptable.  This lack of awareness or perception that, if no harm is intended by these comments, no one should be offended.  It is worth pointing out that these kinds of every day subtleties, with their 'drip drip' effect, are damaging and detrimental to how women are perceived and therefore treated.

 In other instances, colleagues find that when women make comments of ‘I must have gone through a blond moment', this seems to give some men the freedom and permission to make disparaging comments about women, albeit in jest.  Some of these comments made by men were along the lines of 'That was good work... for a woman', 'Can you be Mummy and organise lunch for the next Senior Management Team meeting? (made to a female member of the SMT), 'I am surprised that you managed to do the project given your child care responsibilities....', 'here comes the handbag brigade’; the list goes on.  It is apparent that sexist humour, which is really the denigration of women through humour, trivialises the unpleasant reality of sex discrimination behind a smokescreen of harmless banter and implies that, when sexist language is presented as humour or in jest, it is to be viewed as acceptable and considered a bonding ritual between colleagues.

 Take this real example of a senior management meeting which was also attended by two newly appointed directors.  The chair of the meeting (a man) introduced the new female director with a detailed background about her family; she had three daughters, was a PTA member and attended a book club. In contrast the male director’s professional qualifications and professional accomplishments were highlighted.  It was also telling that the chair even introduced the female member with 'I would like to welcome the beautiful Jackie* to the Board'.  This type of subtle sexism leaves some observers feeling uncomfortable but not entirely sure about what. However, the real danger lies in it being possible to see the comment as normal and acceptable. Further, the Chair could even argue that he was complimenting Jackie.  It later became apparent that Jackie had similar professional qualifications and accomplishments to those of her male counterpart; this was not mentioned at the meeting.

 Various studies* reveals that sexist jokes and gender stereotype are some of the main factors in holding women back from thriving at work.  The hard-to-detect comments can have an insidious effect, which over time is profound enough for women to start conforming to the stereotypes instead of focusing on their career advancement.  Research findings show some common subtle incidents occurring on average 2-5 times a week. These include:

  • Comments that women are not as good as men at certain activities (maths, sports, leadership).
  • Comments that women are too easily offended or that they exaggerate problems.
  • Seemingly benign comments about women, that they are naturally better at cooking, shopping or child care.
  • Choosing women for stereotypical assignments or tasks.
  • Making comments about women's clothing.

 The studies show that, in response to the subtle sexist comments and attitudes, women have been known to perform poorly on cognitive tests. Further, they express feelings of incompetence and even greater dissatisfaction with their work-related performance.

 Fundamentally, it is important for all of us to be aware that, whilst we have made huge strides in moving away from explicitly negative and sexually inappropriate behaviour, subtle comments and remarks considered to be innocuous, are damaging and help maintain the ripple-like effect of discrimination against women.  We need to be more aware of subtle sexism in the workplace, the need to move away from stereotypes and to place a greater focus on treating people as individuals and not labelling them with the group that they represent.

 * 'I am going through a blond moment'.  Term usually made by a woman to imply that she had forgotten to do something, is a scatterbrain or is being silly or stupid. The term is used as a get out clause, a public persona of how 'vulnerably dumb' a woman is.  1990s: from the stereotypical perception of blonde-haired women as unintelligent.

 ** Melbourne Business School, Australia, Pennsylvania State University USA and Philipps University Germany

by Snéha Khilay 01 Oct, 2020

Black History Month originated in 1926 when Carter G Woodson launched Negro History Week in USA, which later became Black History Month, marked for February. Carter specifically chose February to commemorate Abraham Lincoln's birthday, the president who 'freed the slaves'. 

Black History Month in UK was launched in 1987 - a campaign led by Akyaaba Addai Sebbo who worked for Greater London Council at the time. GLC selected October as the Black History Month to coincide with the Marcus Garvey* celebrations and London Jubilee. 

From the London boroughs, the interest in Black History Month soon spread to other cities. Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham actively participated in promoting and publicising its philosophy. 

The aims of Black History Month are to:

-  Promote knowledge of the Black History, Culture and Heritage

-  Disseminate information on positive Black contributions to British Society

-  Heighten the confidence and awareness of Black people to their cultural heritage

Black History Month fundamentally highlights the history and contributions of Black communities and Black individuals, past and present. Although the debate continues whether the month should be exclusive in promoting only the African and Caribbean contributions, the celebrations in UK have to date continued to include all 'Black' Minority Ethnic communities and therefore the term Black is used in the generic sense. School especially take part in Black History Month, in fact October was allocated to coincide with the start of the academic year. 'I really love Black History Month,' enthused 15-year-old Isaac Kwasi whose London school put on a special concert to mark the event. 'To me it's like [Notting Hill] carnival when you are on the centre stage and can be proud to be black.

  ‘2020 has held a mirror up to the world and forced many to see the reality of racism’ – Catherine Ross guest editor of Black History Month 2020

Events in 2020

 -  Worldwide demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died whist stopped by the policy in America

-  Black Lives Matter demonstrations to call for an end to systemic racism, unfair treatment experienced by people due to the colour of their skin

-  Premier League footballers went on one knee to show solidarity to the movement.

-  Removal of statutes of white men who played a pivotal role in the slave trade

-  Concerns around COVID and its impact specifically to Black. Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities

-  Consideration given to include black representation in school curriculum

-  Four post-boxes have been painted black to honour black Britons including Sir Lenny Henry, (Presenter/ Comedian), Mary Seacole (Pioneering Nurse), Walter Tull (footballer) A QR code on the post-boxes brings up a list of black people who have appeared on special stamps

However, it has been argued that Black History Month has become a readymade excuse to ignore African history for the other 11 months of the year. Further Journalists argue that by dedicating only a single month of the year, it provokes a tendency to assume that black history is separate from American/British History. Schools are now taking proactive measures to include the concept of black history as opposed to allocating one month per year.

Joseph Wayne states that "One month out of every year, Americans are given permission to commemorate the achievements of black people. This rather condescending view fails to acknowledge that a people and a country's past should be nurtured and revered; instead, at this time, the past of black Americans is handled in an expedient and cavalier fashion denigrating the very people it seeks to honour" 

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots - Marcus Garvey

 "Intelligence rules the world, ignorance carries the burden..." - Marcus Garvey 

"The pen is mightier than the sword, but the tongue is mightier than them both put together." - Marcus Garvey  


If you would like more details or to have a chat about how we can help your organisations please get in touch

Snéha Khilay

Managing Director

Blue Tulip Consultancy


Inspired by the famous Gandhi quote, “be the change you want to see in the world”,


by Snéha Khilay 01 Jul, 2020

A number of organisations seem to give the impression that they have made significant efforts to recruit and retain staff from a black and minority background, through their war for talent processes. The ideology being that this initiative aims to help ensure a steady supply of trained, competent staff with a level playing field between staff at all levels. However in a survey conducted by Harvey Nash Engage Network, representing leaders from all ethnic backgrounds, findings show that seven out of ten (71%) have experienced discrimination in their career indicating that they have had to work even harder to reach board level or the most senior positions. Given that improving diversity requires commitment from the very top of an organisation, the research points to a lack of action from the CEO and board, with over half (52%) of respondents believing that CEOs and leadership teams do not see the business benefits of diversity to the bottom line despite numerous academic and other studies such as McKinsey's Diversity Matters.

 There is value in setting up processes to tackle the current imbalance, particularly at more senior levels. However the resistance by some leaders who believe that by specifically targeting black and minority groups and putting in place special measures to extend their professional development, competence and leadership skills is inadvertently creating a notion of segregation, a concept of ‘them and us’. Judy Ryde in her book ‘Being White in the Helping Professions’ advocates that the arena of ‘equal opportunities’ had tended to encourage a reliance on ‘politically correct’ notions which leads to a prescribed way of thinking and acting. Agreeing with Ryde’s principles, fundamentally the question is; how can leaders adopt, adapt and improve to enable black and minority ethnic staff to achieve their potential as senior managers and leaders? Note the change in stance from what to how. Are organisations wasting talent through their biases as opposed to giving a message to their BME colleagues of; we want you to feel valued and know that you are valuable?                      

 Having led training programmes on professional leadership and development specifically for black and minority ethnic staff over recent years, aptly titled ‘Finding Your Mojo’, it is apparent that these sessions have consistently had huge, positive impact on the personal and professional lives of the participants concerned. Typical course elements resulting in this positive outcome include effective communication and presentation skills, goal setting, managing limiting beliefs (and unconscious biases) and the value of raising one’s profile.

 These programmes 'allow' for empathy and good humour of fellow participants and understanding of the difficulties / obstacles encountered. In some instances staff from a BME background feel better able to discuss these difficulties, saying that they would feel anxious and vulnerable in discussing these with work colleagues, the perception being, that, in sharing their difficulties (with colleagues), they might be seen as 'unable to cope under pressure'. The programme gives participants the space to talk and just be, whilst establishing clear cut boundaries, it was not a whinge zone fest, instead, the focus is on taking responsibility for change and developing a skill set to succeed.

 Rita, a 43 -year-old woman attended one of these course and initially battled with angst as she did not think she had any skills - she had been ‘plodding on with life’, focusing on her role as office manager. During the programme, Rita became more confident and was able to acknowledge (with pride) of her current skills set. Having worked through her limiting beliefs, Rita assertively asked her organisation to support her so she could do a postgraduate course and work at the same time. She is now a Director at the same company and has written a chapter in a management book. Rita claims that her loyalty to the organisation is fundamental and has valued the support.

 CT, another participant - sheepishly – confessed on day 2 of the course, having been asked to be accountable for submitting 2 job applications, that he has been offered a job as Head of his service. There was an electrifying response to this from the group. Other participants have greater confidence in setting boundaries, often seeking out an internal mentor who can support their ongoing career and professional development as well as management competence. Overall, there are very few participants - I have yet to meet one - who regrets attending a personal development programme or feels they've not benefited from such a valuable opportunity to re-focus on their career aspirations.

 Organisations who have made the effort to reflect on and evaluate their staff from black and minority ethnic background and their experiences have had important insights into how well it ‘does difference’ in all aspects of the organisational structure. By focusing in the areas of recruitment, retention, promotion, development, there is a better understanding of how equality is managed and implemented. At the practical level, the organisation reap benefits not only through the reduced costs of less formal grievances; there is a greater tendency for staff to apply for promotion or further professional qualification after attending a personal effectiveness training programme. By maximising employee potential, it has a direct impact on employee and organisation effectiveness, productivity and profitability. It is more cost effective to maintain and develop a satisfied employee than to hire a new staff member. On occasions, it is worth spending thousands to make millions.

 Blue Tulip Consultancy runs Finding Your Mojo, professional development programmes for black and minority ethnic aspiring managers and leaders. The programme, spread over 5 months, includes workshops, action learning sets, input from guest speakers and one to one coaching sessions.

If you would like more details or to have a chat about how we can help your organisations please get in touch at hello@bluetulipconsultancy or visit


Snéha Khilay
Managing Director


Inspired by the famous Gandhi quote, “be the change you want to see in the world”,


by Snéha Khilay 19 Jun, 2020
The graphic video of George Floyd’s death has opened up numerous wounds; anger, disbelief, angst and despair. The Parliament Square demonstration banners gave a succinct message, ‘Racism has always been a pandemic’.

Large corporate international organisations are speaking out against the atrocity of George Floyds’s death with Youtube and twitter messages; ‘We stand in solidarity against racism and violence’ -Nike, ‘Speaking out is worth it’ – L’Oreal. Lego paused its advertising of toys that feature the police and the White House and the co-founder of Reddit resigned from its board highlighting that he should be replaced by a black candidate.

The global outrage has meant that organisations seem to recognise the business imperative of speaking out, to maintain its reputation amongst staff and ensure customer loyalty. The banner ‘silence is violence’ displayed in the various demonstrations indicate that organisations have considered the implications and consequences, that by not speaking out, it could be perceived as being on the wrong side of this volatile issue. And yes, there is definitely a right side and the wrong side.

Whilst there are some organisational leaders who are genuinely proactive in showing support, concerns are raised whether organisations are setting up tokenistic measures without taking into consideration their own internal treatment and behaviours; namely where black colleagues do not feel valued and included. There also seem to be some form of reticence around the lack of proactive measure in managing inappropriate and unacceptable behaviours. Snéha Khilay, Managing Director Blue Tulip Consultancy says “To this day, I still hear of black colleagues being asked in interviews, ‘where are you from, no, I meant, where are you really from?’ to ‘ I can’t believe you went to university’.” These drip, drip moments/microaggressions cumulate to have a resounding impact on maintaining institutional racism, for instance, despite the evidence that shows Black, Asian Minority Ethnic people (BAME) are disproportionately affected by COVID 19, why, within NHS are 40 percent of BAME doctors yet to receive a coronavirus risk assessment, the recommendation was in place over a month ago?
Over the years, Blue Tulip Consultancy has worked with many individuals who have faced adversity in their work. Inevitably, this adversity is due to their voicing their differences, raising concerns and being treated in a negative manner as a result. Snéha Khilay says “I’ve noticed a consistent theme - at times, people in this position experience despair to the point of wanting to weep. They are aware that their moral compass is not aligned with that of their colleagues and the organisation. As a result, they don't feel 'grounded', experience churning in their stomach, insomnia, changes in their appetite and so on (all classic signs of stress). Throughout this, however, they want to find ways of utilising their anger and frustration by translating it into constructive action.” The individuals in question said the alternative would be to collude and therefore 'agree' with the organisation's (discriminatory) culture. The statement we commonly hear is 'I simply want fairness'. We can reflect on the use of the term ‘wanting fairness’ and its obvious meaning, of ‘a moral standard which represents; good, just, honest, impartial, unprejudiced and aligned with ethnics. However, there is the semantic irony of wanting ‘fairness’ in its literal sense given the preference of fair skin as a symptom of psychological, social identity and preferential treatment.

Such individuals feel that, although their 'fight' (for justice) involved difficulties and emotional grief, they had to take responsibility and focus on the outcome they wanted, basically to continue with their personal and professional lives with their heads held high. They wish to share their stories, not as 'victims of discrimination' and regretting their inaction but as 'warriors for justice and equality'.

What about from the organisation’s perspectives and the need to take responsibility. It is generally recognised that colleagues identify and categorise a person’s status, especially on the measures of being a different skin colour, within a few seconds and this impulsive categorisation can manifest itself in treating such individuals differently and accordingly, thus translating these stereotypes into a distorted reality. How far are colleagues singled out with increased scrutiny and subject to excessive monitoring? Is the organisation able to explain, even justify, why other, similarly situated white colleagues are not treated in the same way?

Fundamentally it is important, now more than ever, in these uncertain times, to sharpen the strong message of the need for change and for inclusion not to be an abstract concept but a term of value, depth and an ethos where the spirit of an organisation is manifested in its attitudes, aspirations and authority to do the right thing. Black Lives Do Matter.

If you would like more details about how we can help your organisation please have a look at our website   or if you would like a short chat over the phone please email to arrange a convenient time.

At Blue Tulip Consultancy we have developed expertise on diversity, inclusion and management/leadership development over the past 20 years. Our focus is to change and improve interactions between people within the business world and education sector. Working at an international level, we have advised and worked with Board Members, CEOs, Executive Directors and Senior Managers on how to develop a strategic and operational approach to the changing stance on equality, diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias. We help identify and implement effective solutions to their organisation-related ‘diversity dilemmas’.

Snéha Khilay
Managing Director
Blue Tulip Consultancy
by SNÉHA KHILAY 30 Jul, 2019
I have included an article about the inability of people to distinguish between their co-workers of colour. The need to be properly acknowledged at work, and not to be confused with someone else, can be an emotional drama causing distress or detachment with far-reaching effects.

Please let me know if you would like to discuss any of the contents in this newsletter or have any other comments.

‘When people can’t tell their co-workers of colour apart, it’s a constant reminder that you’re an outsider’ authored by Rachel Hatzipanagos, Washington Post

It happened again. Nicholas Pilapil got an email clearly meant for his co-worker, Jonathan Castanien. Previously, Pilapil had missed a meeting invitation because their white co-workers couldn’t tell them apart.

So they came up with a cheeky way to address the problem. Between their desks, Pilapil and Castanien hung a sign that read, “This company has worked __ days without an incident. Incorrect names are avoidable.” Whenever a co-worker called one by the other’s name, they would reset the count to zero. During the six months or so that the sign was up, the count never exceeded 14 days, Pilapil said. In total, they were misidentified about 50 times.

“It kind of makes you feel invisible, because they don’t know who you are even though you are putting in this hard work,” Pilapil said. “It was very shocking.”  Pilapil called Castanien his “work twin” — sarcastically, because they bear only a passing resemblance to each other. Aside from being in their 20s, they don’t share many characteristics: Pilapil is Filipino, has fuller lips, a squarer jaw and a darker complexion than Castanien, who is Vietnamese, Chinese and German.  While their cubicles were next to each other, Pilapil worked in communications and Castanien worked in public relations. The only thing that could have prompted their colleagues’ confusion, Pilapil says, was that they both had Asian heritage.

Pilapil and Castanien’s experience is common. When About Us asked people of colour on Twitter for stories about being misidentified in predominantly white places, more than 400 people replied, including a digital marketing consultant whose client kept calling him by his gardener’s name and a professor whose student turned in a paper with the wrong professor’s name.

The implication is that, while white people are seen as individuals, other groups are often viewed as a monolith, with their race or ethnicity becoming the defining characteristic of who they are. “If we just identify someone as a ‘black person,’ then that is how we are going to see them,” said Kareem Johnson, an associate professor of psychology at Temple University.

While many on the receiving end of this phenomenon say it’s another example of every day racism, it does not necessarily indicate negative racial attitudes, Johnson said. Rather, it’s part of a larger cognitive problem called the cross-race effect — essentially, the impression that people of a race other than your own “all look the same.” “We have much more difficulty recognizing people of a different racial group than we do our own,” he said.

The problem can also occur when a person’s name reflects their heritage. Johnson, who is one of a handful of African American professors in his department, says he is mistakenly called Hakeem or other names of similar ethnic origin.

While #RepresentationMatters has become a cultural force in demanding visibility for people of color in film and television in recent years, generations of Americans have grown up watching mostly white faces on screen and in speaking roles where they are given more depth and humanity. “As a minority in America, you’re much more likely to get practice differentiating between white faces due to more exposure,” Johnson said.

While there are cognitive explanations for the “work twin” problem, these kinds of common, subtle slights, known as microaggressions, cause undue stress over time. Microaggressions — such as asking Asian Americans where they’re from or repeatedly mispronouncing a person’s name — make people of colour permanent outsiders and create constant discomfort in offices, schools and other places where they have to be.

“Study after study shows that there are negative compromises to well-being when people experience microaggressions,” said David Rivera, an associate professor at Queens College, City University of New York, who has studied microaggressions for more than a decade. “It’s the accumulation of microaggressions over the months and days and years that creates these compromises.”

This can lead to mental health issues such as depression, traumatic stress symptoms and suicidal ideation. It’s a particular problem in workplace hierarchies, which make it difficult to raise grievances over these slights, Rivera said. “If you receive a microaggression from someone who is higher status, you likely have more to risk,” he said. “People tend to keep those microaggressions to themselves because they don’t want to be labeled as the troublemaker.”

Workplace microaggressions can have a ripple effect, too, endangering people beyond the direct target.

An Indian American doctor working at a Minneapolis hospital described a situation when a nurse mistook her identity while asking about a patient’s status. The nurse wanted to know whether it was okay for the patient who had liver disease to eat that day. Since the patient had no medical procedures scheduled, the doctor replied, “Yes, of course it is.” But the nurse was asking about a different patient.

“Another woman who had liver disease was being taken care of by one of my colleagues, who I think looks nothing like me, but she’s Indian,” said the doctor, who requested anonymity to avoid violating patient privacy laws. “And she came in the workroom and said, ‘My patient couldn’t go down to biopsy because someone let her eat.’” The doctors realized that the nurse had mistaken their identities.

“The patient who needed an urgent diagnostic test got bumped off the schedule because she had eaten,” the doctor said. “That woman continued to get sick, and she was too unstable to get the procedure done the following day.” The doctors wondered if there was anything they could do to prevent such mistakes. For those who experience cross-race effect frequently, psychological explanations can feel like a cold comfort.

Mandeep Singh, a 25-year-old Sikh man, is frequently confused for colleagues at the San Francisco tech company where he works, and he has made a point to call out anyone who confuses him for another brown-skinned co-worker, even when the vice president of his company made the error. Singh said that he would like to see the company have a more open conversation with white co-workers about such microaggressions and the harm they cause to employees of colour and the general office culture.

“I don’t think it needs to be a dramatic and controversial conversation, but I think that individuals need to understand why this happens and where it is coming from,” Singh said. “If an organization wants to be respectful, this is part of the conversation that people need to have.”

Rivera, the microaggressions expert, said there is some benefit to calling out microaggressions in the moment. He suggests saying something like, “That interaction made me feel [fill in the blank]. Can we have a conversation about that?” Don’t be surprised if the action results in some pushback, he said.

“I do think that people should expect defensiveness, but we shouldn’t let that defensiveness stop us from pursuing the conversation further,” Rivera said. But, he added, he’d avoid saying one triggering word: racism. It tends to shut down the conversation before it can start. “I would never tell someone that ‘what you said was racist,’” he said. “I would never start out with that. It may lead there.”

Pilapil took another tactic when he put up the sign in his workplace marking the number of days since he was called by the wrong name. It both provided a way to quantify his experience with this particular microaggression and to shame co-workers at the theatre company in Orange County, Calif. But instead of starting a conversation or prompting his co-workers to be more sensitive, Pilapil ultimately was ordered to remove the sign.

“We were asked to take it down because they said it makes people uncomfortable. But we were uncomfortable,” Pilapil said. “We said, ‘We’re sorry that your racism makes you uncomfortable.’”

Source Washington Post 2 May 2019
Author: Rachel Hatzipanagos

Case Law - Autistic employee disadvantaged by a failure to adjust an open plan workplace

In Sherbourne v N Power Ltd, an ET upheld S’s claim that his employer indirectly discriminated against him on the grounds of his disability, i.e. autism, and failed to make reasonable adjustments to his working environment.

S worked in an open plan setting with a busy walkway behind him, and building works going on around him, and he became overwhelmed and distracted. The flexible office environment also caused S problems meaning that he was not always at his own desk. As a result, S had a breakdown, went off sick and was diagnosed by his GP as suffering from an anxiety disorder.

An ET found that discrimination had occurred because of a continuous management failure to take reasonable steps to understand S’s disability and a failure to implement two sets of adjustments, i.e. (1) four recommendations from the employer’s in-house doctor to facilitate S’s return to work, all of which the employer indicated were achievable; and, (2) dismissing S without completing a management agreed combined welfare and capability procedure, which had included attempting to find S an alternative role.

Source: Simons Muirhead and Burton – Law Firm based in London

Sneha's Corner

Isn’t it interesting how humour and fun are capable of quickly making bleak situations seem a lot more positive? They are also excellent tools for calming people down and handling heated situations. In fact, the right humorous word at the right time can work wonders. Individuals who have integrated humuor into their lives do not only laugh more often they also know that certain things in life simply do not be taken seriously. Even more so, if you can be humorous and laid-back about certain developments in your life, you’ll find it a lot easier to cope with them.

Indeed the term gallows humour, original term, galgenhumor, has been traced to the 1848 revolutions and refers to cynical humor that derives from stressful or traumatic situations. Antonin Obrdlik said that “gallows humor is an index of strength or morale on the part of oppressed peoples,” and it has historically been associated with the persecuted and condemned.

Theorist Martin Armstrong, who wrote about the function of laughter in society, may have said it best when he wrote, “For a few moments, under the spell of laughter, the whole man (sic) is completely and gloriously alive: body, mind and soul vibrate in unison… the mind flings open its doors and windows… its foul and secret places are ventilated and sweetened.”

by Snéha Khilay 21 Mar, 2018

There is a degree of cynicism as to whether training programmes on diversity and unconscious bias, together with ad hoc mentoring programmes help resolve concerns linked to inclusivity in the workplace. As a diversity consultant, I interact with senior leaders who claim inclusive leadership as one of their organisational values. Yet, when I probe further, they sheepishly acknowledge that they don’t really know what this means but need to pretend that they do.

For the lay person, what does ‘inclusive leadership’ mean in practice?
Boris Groysberg and Katherine Connolly (Harvard Business Review Sept 2013) surveyed 24 CEOs worldwide, who headed organisations with good reputations for embracing people from different backgrounds.  The common theme identified was threefold, firstly ensuring inclusivity was a personal mission to the CEOs. Secondly, diversity was a business imperative; as a source of creativity and innovation. And finally, inclusivity was a moral imperative linked to their personal experiences and values.

In parallel, organisations who value inclusive leadership also recognise that, when employees feel acknowledged and therefore valued, there is better customer service providing a reputational (and therefore business) edge.  Equally, other research (Opportunity Now) found that 80% of those who had worked with an inclusive leader were more motivated, productive, loyal to the organisation and more likely to go the extra mile.

In my previous employment, one of the managers I regarded most highly was a progressive, inclusive leader. He set clear standards and did not expect us to work beyond 5 pm. He also supported all staff in managing our time effectively with child care and other personal arrangements.  My manager was well respected and employee retention was at its highest level due to this approach. In response, there was a strong commitment to work and we all worked effectively as a team, willing to undertake additional tasks when required.

 A question often asked is that, whilst there is the recognition of the benefits of inclusive leadership, how does it translate into practice?  Over the years I have provided consultancy support to leaders from various sectors, both public and corporate and in line with some of the research conducted at a global level, there are some themes which are conducive to developing inclusive leadership practice. These can form part of an action plan for organisations to consider, aligned with a value statement of ‘no excuses, only excellence’.  As Martin Luther King put it, ‘If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way’.

Leaders do set a clear definition of what is meant by an inclusive culture, embraced within the organisation culture.  Grosberg and Connolly defined this as ‘one in which employees can contribute to the success of the company as their true selves whilst the organisation respects and leverages their talents which gives them a sense of connectedness’.  

Leadership agility – an ability to adapt behaviour to take into consideration colleagues’ different and cultural perspectives and experiences. Through this process, to develop effective communication skills to understand, influence and motivate.  A senior leader that I worked with told me he regularly held one-to-one meetings with all his staff, adapting his communication style to the individual. Through this process he was better able to understand not only their career aspirations, he was able to take preventative action to address concerns raised, which led to huge saving particular in relation to managing problems at an early stage.

 Leaders who are aware of their own biases and preferences, actively seek out and consider different views and perspectives, taking responsibility for recognising and correcting unconscious biases in informal / formal processes, language patterns and behaviours.  Some leaders value diverse teams, recognising that although it takes longer to make decisions, it is worth the investment as decisions are robust and easier to implement.  In parallel, senior management teams take responsibility for ensuring that staff are clear of their responsibilities within an inclusive workplace culture.

  • Leaders encourage accountability in diversity metrics.  Whilst diversity can be seen as abstract and tokenistic, evidence based statistics are more defined.  Organisations now examine in detail the correlation between sets of metrics over time.  For instance, how does the composition of people applying for jobs correlate to candidates offered jobs? Then how does it translate into candidates accepting those jobs and finally those who are successful in their jobs six months after joining the organisation? Another set of metrics that can be used is tracking the retention rate for different groups - the rates at which staff achieve promotion, how long this has taken, how many staff are leaving the organisation. Such metrics help diagnose and understand what’s going on - enabling leaders to review the metrics and develop action plans to address any issues identified.
  • Leadership commitment in championing initiatives and seeking tangible evidence that diversity and inclusion is an organisation priority. Leaders who dedicate time to work on diversity and inclusion initiatives personally take proactive measures such as attending staff networks and chairing Diversity and Inclusion steering groups.  In both instances, there are clear expectations set, with the purpose and goals of the groups identified and implemented within set time frames. Goals are linked to areas of recruitment, promotion, allocation of work, opportunities for professional development and customer engagement.  Identifying, analysing and taking proactive measures to address any concerns identified can significantly raise staff confidence and employee engagement.
  • Leadership role model - a varied array of leaders signal a top down commitment to diversity, which also provides emerging leaders with role models to identify with and model. 
  • Inclusive leadership is about organisational culture change.  It is estimated that it takes two to three years for such change to become fully embedded.  During this process, it is worth recognising that organisations will experience redundancies, retirements and restructures, raising questions whether inclusive practice can be sustained during these changes. Leaders who prioritise inclusive practice during these changes recognise that staff need to feel valued and involved.

Essentially, for inclusive leadership to become best practice, embedded throughout an organisation, it has to be at the heart of the organisation rather than seen as the latest fad, a tokenistic gesture sugar coated through potential rather than actual equal opportunities.  Inclusive Leadership is about hard work, clear thinking and collective effort.  As Steve Redgrave said when competing for the Olympics ‘It's not always a bed of roses, but the blend of characters makes the strength of the team'.


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