Why HR Shouldn’t Own Inclusion

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On the list of “things that come up a lot in Feminist Cabal meetings”, pretty high is a complaint that HR have taken ownership of “inclusion” and are being ineffective.

This is not surprising when you think about it. Regardless of discussion about “employee happiness” etc, the main function of HR is to ensure that the company doesn’t get sued. Whilst in theory inclusion should reduce the risk of lawsuits, in practise it’s unclear as to whether that is the case, and definitely that is a longer-term outcome rather than a short-term one.

Three reasons why HR have tended to be ineffective at Inclusion: Trust, Data, and Accountability.

Trust

A genuine inclusion effort defines new parameters, but HR are often distrusted for failing to enforce the theoretical parameters of the old system. Almost every woman I know has a story about harassment at work, and spoiler, the ending is never “but HR handled it really well and I still work there”. Alternative endings include:

  • “It was OK in the end because it pushed me to look for something better. That guy still works there though.”
  • “They finally fired him after he harassed multiple other people, but process was exhausting and cost me a lot of political capital.”

There is no viable strategy for inclusion that doesn’t include the willingness to fire people over it. Inclusion is the potential to include everyone, not the inclusion of everyone. That means that people must be included on the basis of things they can’t change (gender, orientation, race, etc…) but it’s perfectly reasonable, necessary, to exclude people on the basis of things they could change, but have chosen not to (bigotry).

Far too often people hear “well we want to include everyone, which means including that guy who is choosing to harass you” and the outcome of this is that the victim of harassment quits instead, and the harasser keeps working there.

This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be given feedback and the opportunity to improve. But it’s up to them to take it, and there need to be consequences if they don’t.

How does this relate to trust? Well, this is the system we have had for a long time, and HR have been the enforcers of it. It is hard for people to have any faith that the same documentation, and the same people, will now have a new ethos.

And if the priority is not getting sued… the strategy has generally been gas-lighting victims into submission, and anecdotally at least, it seems like that has been pretty effective. So when it comes down to it, what will win out? Not getting sued? Or Inclusion?

Data

HR often doesn’t want to release data, and there are good reasons why – personal information, and especially for smaller companies, statistical significance. But everyone knows the Dave : woman/latinx/black ratio, and just because the numbers aren’t out there doesn’t mean that people don’t have a very good idea of what’s going on. It just seems like HR are needlessly hiding something that everybody knows.

The same for data around recruitment and attrition. 1 women leaving when there are 10 might statistically be there same as 10 men leaving when there are 100, but is liable to feel very different to the 9 women who remain.

Accountability

Finally, if HR own inclusion, who are they accountable to? Are they evaluated on whether employees trust them to speak to? Or whether ERG (Employee Resource Group) leaders think that they are effective? What’s the lead time on feedback? Is it filtered through employee surveys… run by HR?

Product and Engineering leadership tend to be separate for a good reason. One asks “what could we do” the other answers “this is what’s feasible”. There’s a natural tension there, that it’s hard for one person to hold together. They risk being not ambitious enough, or too ambitious and defining something that can’t be executed on. The questions “how do we include everyone and address historic structural inequity” is a hard one for someone whose focus has been “how do we not get sued” to answer. It’s hard to hold people accountable for these two things together – since success on one may come at the expense of the other, incentives are unclear.

If Not HR, then Who?

Clearly D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) is HR related and even if not within HR needs to work with HR – and HR needs to work with D&I (seriously: I’ve heard multiple stories of HR people bullying D&I counterparts). Even if D&I strategy is not defined by HR, HR will need to execute on parts of that strategy. The title of this post is provocative, intended to invite you to reconsider the role of D&I and define it in a way that will be effective.

Some questions to consider:

  • Who owns D&I?
  • Do they have credibility?
  • Are they trusted?
  • How are they evaluated?
  • How are they held accountable?

And finally, is the risk of lawsuits overstated?  For women at least (and I expect other under-indexed people), a lawsuit is seen as likely to end your career. Given the state of things, it’s hard to imagine an under-indexed person suing a company where they are appreciated and happy, that is actively working to address historical inequity, unthinkingly perpetuated. Entitled white men seem to be much more litigious. If fear of lawsuits is king, inclusion will never move forward.

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