How to transform D&I from buzzwords to actual results: things you can do

Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) – We have all heard these two buzzwords being used together a million times, but in reality they rarely go hand in hand. Many law firms have now set hiring or promotion targets – this may boost diversity numbers, but this does not naturally lead you to achieving inclusion.

In fact, we are habitually exclusive – it may not be intentional, as many of us do not purposely set out to exclude people – we just naturally cluster with people like ourselves. This is what psychologists called ‘affinity bias’.

Therefore, active inclusion is the key to achieving a true inclusive culture and allowing a diverse team to prosper. It takes time, planning and action. We need to be deliberate about it because defaulting to the status quo is not good enough. Here are some practical suggestions on how firms can implement active inclusion, starting from recruitment to working together as a team:

  • Forget about the ‘fit’: Teams often focus on recruiting and retaining the ‘right fit’ to the team. This is problematic because the notion of ‘fitting in’ kills individuality. It is counter-productive to recruit a diverse team only to then have everyone think in the same way.
  • Make them feel safe: When minorities are expected to ‘fit into’ a team, there is a natural desire to conform because they do not want to be stigmatised. Consequently, minorities often experience a sense of vulnerability because the assumption is that it is unsafe to reveal their true self. An inclusive team should invite minorities to speak up, make them feel valued and instil a shared belief that their workplace is a safe environment for everyone to express a broad range of opinions.
  • Get to know them on a personal level: Actively invest time getting to know one another and do not assume that a team member feels included. Make sure any new trainees or lateral hires are properly introduced to the team. Host regular virtual lunches or networking sessions to keep those supportive bonds strong, which are even more important in the current remote working world.
  • Ensure fair play: Level the playing field by reflecting upon any existing exclusive behaviour. Recognise the (unearned) advantages of the dominant group, e.g. the fact that they can go to most meetings with a sense of belonging, without feeling somewhat out-of-place, outnumbered or feared, and without having to communicate in a non-native language. Establish a system to offer equal opportunities for growth and promotion.
  • Empowerment: Provide dedicated training on the potential additional challenges faced by minorities as part of your mainstream development program.
  • Forward leading: Leaders should be mindful about incorporating individual differences and allowing minorities to have a real influence on the business. Think about how the firm can benefit from this diversity:
    • keep a record of relevant language skills which may be useful on transactions; and
    • consider your team members’ interests and be creative when organising social events or client events.
  • Be empathetic: In addition to the hard gaps, we should also mind the ‘soft’ hidden gaps: e.g. did you just spend most of your catch-up chatting about Saturday’s football match? Were the questions asked during your last pub quiz so typically British that anyone new to the country may feel intimidated?

We must continue to lead change, because inaction will not lead to inclusion. Active inclusion requires us to overhaul our naturally exclusive systems and processes to support an inclusive, supportive and diverse practice. It is by doing so that we achieve true D&I and are therefore able to celebrate individual differences and leverage these as a team.

Andrea Ng, Senior Associate
A member of the Race & Ethnicity Committee and steering committee of the Society of East Asian Lawyers at Allen & Overy.

Further reading:

The 6 signature traits of an inclusive leader:

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