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The critical role of the hr function in building workplace inclusivity

Last updated on 04.06.2020


In contemporary times, the workplace is increasingly being characterised by diversity in several areas such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so on. Diversity has become a strategic approach adopted by organisations towards gaining a competitive advantage. A major role in this context has been played by the HR function in organisations. The HR department is essentially responsible for attracting, directing and maintaining people within the organisation (Lado and Wilson, 1994). In this regard, HR practices often deal with individual differences, welfare and development of employees in an organisation (Truss et al., 1997). Therefore, propagating and supporting a culture of inclusion within the workplace by ensuring diversity and equality becomes an important role of the HR function. The key HR functions include recruitment and selection, training and development, performance appraisal and compensation (Shen and Edwards, 2006). This article reflects upon how the incorporation of diversity and equality considerations into each of these HR functions significantly contributes towards creating an inclusive workplace. Additionally it supports this statement by demonstrating a real life case of the role played by the HR in Vodafone, an organisation that is known for its inclusive work environment.

HR role towards promotion of Equality and Diversity

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At every step HR functions contribute towards building a culture of inclusion in organisations. This begins right from the Recruitment and Selection process. HR managers are responsible for ensuring that people belonging to diverse groups are given equal opportunities to be a part of their organisation. Since the selection process is the first step, it forms individuals initial impression about the culture, norms and values of the organisation. Therefore negative experiences arising from unfair practices can create serious barriers in the individuals mind. In order to ensure fairness, selection practices should be designed keeping in mind procedural justice (uniform process giving everyone equal opportunity to perform), informational justice

(provision for honest feedback) and interpersonal justice (treating all candidates with respect & dignity). An important prerequisite to ensure that the recruitment and selection process is fair towards all candidates involves providing unconscious bias training to all decision makers on the recruitment panel. A common mistake made by recruiters is to judge candidates based on criterias that do not align to their job role. In order to avoid this recruiters should make a list of the core competencies required for the job role and strictly refer only to those competencies while evaluating candidates. For instance a software developer should be assessed on his coding skills rather than his social skills. HR professionals have a tendency to fall into Schneider’s (1987) ASA (attraction-selection-attrition) cycle, they select employees who share similar values or beliefs with them. However the same needs to be avoided in order to develop a multicultural workforce, this can be done by generating awareness amongst recruiters about how their beliefs, values and attitudes play a role in the judgements made by them during the selection and recruitment process.

An example of inclusive HR practices in recruitment, is an initiative taken by a major law firm Clifford Chance, at their London HQ recruitment process. They have set up an online portal for recruitment through which they are able to keep note of the diverse backgrounds their applicants belong to in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, social background or religion. This data is kept anonymous but studied at each step of the selection process. The outcomes based on the analysis of the data demonstrates to the firm the prevalent barriers for diverse talent coming into the firm, and they then take the required steps to solve these problems (Clifford Chance, 2019).

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The next key HR function is Training and Development. Training involves a group of activities which are directed towards changing an employees attitudes, cognitive skills, behaviours, values or emotions (Jehn & Bezrukova, 2004; Nemetz & Christensen, 1996). High quality diversity awareness training and unconscious bias training play a crucial role towards reducing employees biases (Brewer & Brown, 1998), increasing their perceived similarities (Gartner, Rust, Bachman, Dovido & Anastasio, 1994) and changing their views (Nemetz & Christensen, 1996). This type of training helps to impart values of diversity and equality, building a cohesive work environment that yields positive business outcomes. It also modifies an individual’s past stereotypes, negativity, attitudes and behaviour by teaching them about the various diverse groups (Denson, 2009) and encouraging empathy (Paluck & Green, 2009). Additionally training can also help an individual to develop skills that enable him/her to work cooperatively with a diverse group and operate effectively in a multicultural environment. In a study conducted by Rynes and Rosen (1995) it was found that 75% of trainees developed positive diversity attitudes after the training, where as in the beginning only 9% of them had favourable diversity attitudes. Additionally 60% of the trainees were skeptical prior to the training, but by the end only 7% expressed skepticism. Training designs should also incorporate findings of the social psychological research on stereotyping and linkages to prejudice reduction. Training needs to be shaped as per the specified needs of the individual, team, level, organization or division, and linked to their strategic objectives (Shen et al., 2009). An example of diversity training is the Living Equality and Diversity (LEAD) online training programme that is available on the Trinity College Dublin online portal. It is a mandatory diversity and equality issues awareness training for all staff members sitting on the recruitment panels. It is also available for students, professors or other managerial members of the University on voluntary basis (, 2019).

Further in context of career development, widespread discrimination is often found in this area, resulting in low morale and negative perceptions amongst employees belonging to minority groups (Richard and Kirby, 1999). This issue is tackled by the construction of strict HR policies towards providing diverse groups with equal professional development opportunities , this is a critical step for keeping diverse employees motivated. For this purpose minorities should be often placed on panels that take decisions on promotions. Scholars have also suggested creating a culture of mentoring as an approach for diversity management, mentors can help minorities to break through the invisible barriers and progress in their careers (Ragins, 2002).

Performance Appraisal is another important HR function. In order to support equality and diversity considerations the first step is to ensure that appraisals are always objective and never subjective. This is the key to make appraisals free of any bias and fair to all employees (Schuler, Dowling and DeCieri, 1993). The performance evaluation system should encourage transparency, the evaluation process should be clear, reliable and based on fixed criterias. Additionally feedback should be viewed as a norm and provided to all employees in a manner than induces perceptions of equality amongst diverse groups. The decision making process should be uniform irrespective of a person’s personal characteristics such as race, gender etc.

Another approach is to make employees feel like they are in control of their performance evaluations, this can be facilitated by letting employees set goals for themselves and giving them the right to question outcomes. The importance of such control oriented practices has been demonstrated by the Control Theory proposed by Thibaut and Walker (1975), which states that individual perceptions of fairness increase when their desire to control is satisfied. An example of an organisation that has implemented this approach is the american multinational General Electric. Employees at GE have been introduced to a new app called “PD@GE” where they can set their own short term goals or priorities and are evaluated by their managers based on their progress towards these goals. Additionally the app also offers a feature called “insights” through which employees can request for feedback at any point (Baldassarre and Finken, 2015). This gives them a sense of control. The performance appraisals need to be constructed with an aim of being as culturally neutral as possible, for instance the language should emphasise on the individuals performance at work and not his/her personal attributes like race or personality (Fulkerson and Schuler, 1992). Scholars have also suggested that managers actions towards hiring and promoting minorities should be measured, and this should be a criteria for assessing their performance. This will act as a useful mechanism for promoting favourable equality and diversity behaviours amongst managers (Morrison 1992; Sessa 1992).

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Lastly equality in the Compensation structures created by HR managers is important for promoting diversity and yielding favourable business outcomes. The compensation packages given to employees are supposed to be purely based on the principles of equal pay and performance based pay system. Individuals are to be judged on their skills, knowledge and ability while designing benefit schemes and wage determinants (Shen et al., 2009). Distributive justice needs to be taken into consideration while designing compensation and benefits plans in order to induce a sense of equality amongst diverse groups. The importance of such fair practices are reflected in Adam’s (1965) Equity Theory. This theory states that individuals tend to compare their compensation and contributions to those of others (termed as referents) , in order to assess pay justice. If an individual feels a sense inequality after making such comparisons, he/she has a tendency to demonstrate negative behaviour towards the referent. A useful mechanism for offering equal pay is job evaluation, it involves evaluating the job role and deciding a fixed pay for the same, thus the person holding the role is not relevant. Equal pay is very important to maintain employee morale and for organisations to attract a diverse workforce. An example of a compensation system that promotes equality is found at Costco Wholesale. They give wages purely based on the job role and total number of hours worked, thus irrespective of an individual’s diverse background he/she gets paid at the same scale as everyone else (, 2019).

Other HR initiatives towards diversity management include creating strong diversity policies, providing team based incentives, facilitating flexible working hours, provision of support services to foster work life balance, designing selection tests that can be attempted by diverse candidates including those from disabled and neurodiverse groups, creating identity based networking groups and conducting employee inductions consistent with the specific needs of diverse employees.

A Case Study: HR fosters Equality and Diversity at Vodafone

Vodafone is an appreciable example of an organisation that identifies the importance of fostering equality and diversity for running a successful business. The HR in Vodafone has played a major role towards building an organisational culture of inclusion that runs from the top-down and the bottom-up. Through the implementation of diversity focused HR policies and practices they have made sure that the employees at Vodafone are provided with a supportive environment to move forward in their careers. Their HR department has taken several initiatives to support diversity in the areas of Gender, Disability, LGBT+, Ethnicity and Age.

Diversity and equality considerations have been included right from the hiring process, in this regard the initiatives taken by the HR include using blind CV’s and publishing job advertisements that are gender neutral. They believe that the key to break barriers is to increase awareness of unconscious biases. This has been facilitated by their Training and Development team, that offers toolkits and face to face training programmes as well as E-learning to generate unconscious bias awareness. The team has also conducted high profile webinars and other events towards highlighting the specific areas where biases can creep into the work environment. However training is not enough, in order to get results companies need to measure the outcome of these trainings, this approach has also been adopted by Vodafone. Their annual people survey measures inclusivity in the organisation to assess their progress and share best practices, with a vision of ultimately creating the best inclusive environment for all employees. In 2018, the survey was filled by 87% employees across Vodafone in all countries. The results reflected that 90% of employees felt that they were treated fairly in their workplace and 87% felt that they could be themselves at work (Vodafone, 2019a).

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Vodafone began their move towards creating an inclusive workplace by initially focusing on Gender diversity. HR Initiatives in this domain include, their supportive Maternity and Paternity Policy, Reconnect Global Returners programme and Code Like a girl coding programme. Their Maternity policy offers all women at least 16 weeks fully paid maternity leave and even upon returning they are allowed to work 30 hours weekly on full pay. Recently they also launched a global paternity policy that provides at least 2 weeks of fully paid leave. The Reconnect Global Returners programme has been initiated in order to attract women who have left the workplace for many years, these women are brought back to the workplace and provided with the required training and development opportunities to jump back into their careers. Lastly their code like a girl coding programme is an initiative to address the gender gap in STEM careers. It offers coding training to thousands of girls aged 14-18 across 26 nations (, 2019).

Additionally the HR at Vodafone has also created identity based networking groups in order to make employees belonging to minority groups feel comfortable and enable them to seek support from their peers. Such as their Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT+) friends network which is devoted to celebrating LGBT+ pride within Vodafone. Their mission is to inspire and empower people belonging to the LGBT+ community to come work with them, as well as feel free to be themselves both inside and outside the workplace. As a part of this initiative they have put in place a LGBT+ inclusive code of conduct and started a LGBT+ Buddy Programme for their new Graduates. Under this programme all LGBT+ graduates are provided with a buddy belonging to their community, the buddy serves to help and support them at the beginning of their careers at Vodafone (Vodafone, 2019b).


The above discussion puts forward the integral role played by key HR functions in facilitating a tactical approach towards nurturing a culture of inclusion in the workplace. It also demonstrates using the example of Vodafone, how HR initiatives were able to successfully build an inclusive workplace. In this regard, strategically organisations should have HR diversity and equality managers as a part of their top management. This will help create a management philosophy of inclusion, that flows from top to bottom within the organisation and is reflected in the organisational business strategy, vision and mission.

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