Diversity and inclusion are inextricably linked. Organizations without diversity cannot be inclusive. Without inclusion, diverse organizations cannot thrive.

Pressure to create organizations that are both diverse and inclusive is growing. Not just because it is a right thing to do, but because it is also the smart thing to do. Research shows that diverse and inclusive organizations achieve:

  • 70% higher growth, according to Chief Executive for Corporate Purpose (CECP)
  • 36% better profitability, according to McKinsey
  • 75% faster time to market, according to the Center for Talent Innovation
  • 19% better innovation, according to Boston Consulting Group

But while considerable time and many discussions are devoted to diversity, there has been much less discussion about what organizations need to do to become truly inclusive.

We have identified the four key areas involved in building an inclusive organization:

  1. Behavioral inclusion: Individuals can be inclusive by recognizing long-held unconscious bias and working to mitigate it
  2. Structural inclusion: Organizations can be inclusive by re-examining and reshaping their talent processes to ensure they’re fair and equitable for the entire employee population
  3. Inclusive leadership: Leaders can be inclusive by cultivating a specific set of skills and experiences that foster collaboration and cultural agility
  4. Change management: Executives can help organizations be inclusive by making sure the changes stick over time


As the diagram above illustrates, all four elements are closely related. Behavioral and structural inclusion depend on each other and are critical to enhancing collaborative intelligence, quality decision-making and problem-solving, and overall team creativity. Inclusive leaders create the trusting, open environment that makes behavioral and structural inclusion possible. Underpinning all those efforts is effective change management, which enables organizations to be inclusive over the long term.

Below, we look in more detail at each of the four elements needed to build an inclusive organization.

1. Behavioral inclusion: building an inclusive organization through learning journeys

Many leaders have adopted unconscious bias training in their efforts to build more inclusive organizations.

Unconscious biases are the blind spots that distort our attitudes, actions and decisions concerning those who are different from us. For example, a hiring manager may dismiss the resume of an applicant without a college degree, even after recruiters have deemed the applicant suitable.

Unconscious bias training is an important first step toward being an inclusive organization because it gives people a safe space to build self-awareness and recognize their inherent prejudices without feeling judged.

However, training alone hasn’t done much to break down the barriers holding back traditionally underrepresented talent. Awareness doesn’t automatically translate into action.

That’s where behavioral inclusion comes in.

Inclusive behavior training goes beyond simple awareness-raising, leading individuals on a journey of self-discovery and equipping them with the ability to act on their self-awareness and become more consciously inclusive.

This isn’t just about understanding the biases that hamper decision-making in dimensions such as race, gender, sexual orientation, accent, and physical and mental ability. It’s also about building the skills needed to take inclusive actions and make decisions on a moment-by-moment basis.

Designing an effective inclusive behavior learning journey

As a leader of an inclusive organization, you need to give your employees the opportunity to practice being inclusive.

Familiar work situations such as interviewing, mentoring, managing performance, and conflict resolution can all lead to unconscious bias. By simulating these situations, you can help individuals learn to make judgments based not on assumptions but on a deep understanding and appreciation of difference.

Your inclusive behavior learning journey should also teach individuals how to reduce micro-inequities and increase micro-affirmations.

Micro-inequities are day-to-day exchanges that transmit a sense of subordination from one individual to others based on any number of social identities, including race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, nationality, religion, and disability. For example:

  • Men monopolizing speaking time and constantly interrupting their female colleagues
  • Making assumptions about qualifications or abilities that are distinct from work output
  • Using outdated language to refer to a racial or ethnic group

Micro-affirmations are small gestures of inclusion, caring, and listening that enable everyone to succeed through equal opportunity and treatment. These are grounded in an environment marked by generosity, credit-giving, support, and respect for all—the culture of an inclusive organization. For example:

  • Acknowledging excellence demonstrated by colleagues without bias
  • Providing direct reports equal access to development opportunities
  • Affirming emotional reactions and validating the experiences of different individuals

2. Structural inclusion: building an inclusive organization by design

Talent systems are meant to optimize human performance. But many of them have in-built biases—known as systemic biases—that privilege certain groups over others. These biases may have been built in unconsciously or intentionally. Either way, the effect is the same: they undermine the progress of traditionally underrepresented talent.

If you want evidence of systemic bias in organizations, you don’t have to look very far:

  • Only 35 (7%) of current Fortune 500 CEOs are women
  • Only 4 (<1%) of current Fortune 500 CEOs are Black
  • Women are promoted at a lower rate than men
  • Members of racially and ethnically underrepresented groups are promoted less and given lower performance ratings than white people

Structural inclusion addresses these in-built biases. The aim is to remove exclusionary forces and create an environment in which all employees are empowered to contribute, develop and reach their full potential.

If behavioral inclusion is about tackling individual biases, then structural inclusion is about putting equitable systems in place that prevent those biases from occurring in the first place—and corrects these biases when they do occur. In other words, structural inclusion is what makes behavioral inclusion stick.

There are three key elements involved in building a structurally inclusive organization: equality, equity and inclusive design.

Equality means fairness for everyone. It is a promise that no one is to be favored or treated unfairly because of who they are. Organizations can pursue equality through their values and codes of ethics and by instituting non-discriminatory policies and practices in hiring, assessment, promotion, and rewards.

Equity makes equality possible. The reality is that we are not all on a level playing field. People from certain backgrounds start off with unearned advantages or disadvantages that perpetuate inequities in access, rewards, opportunity, and support. Equity is about righting these past wrongs.

Inclusive design is the key to achieving equality and equity. It’s about defining what equality means for your talent management processes, identifying potential inequities and their historical root causes, and then eliminating or significantly reducing them.

Your inclusive design journey in four steps

HR leaders used to believe that the key to achieving equality was taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Unfortunately, the one size in question often turned out to be white and male. This built unconscious biases into systems that have impeded the progress of underrepresented talent ever since.

If you want to become a truly inclusive organization, then you need to take a different approach. By focusing first on the most marginalized and excluded populations, you can create systems that address the needs of all. This approach is known as inclusive design.

We have identified four steps organizations need to follow when designing inclusive talent systems. These steps are adapted from the inclusive design principles developed by Jutta Treviranus, the founder and director of the Inclusive Design Research Center (IDRC) at OCAD University in Toronto. They are:

1. Define equality. 

Your inclusive design journey should begin with an explicit declaration of what kind of equality your organization stands for and how it manifests itself in talent management practices and processes. 

You must then ensure that the organization’s aspirational statements and policies support this declaration, and that every leader, manager, and employee will ensure that no one is favored or unfavored on the basis of who they are.

2. Unearth inequities. 

The second step in your organization’s inclusive design journey is to unearth areas where you have disparities in your talent systems. Ask questions such as:

  • Is the organization living up to its commitments on equality?
  • Do leaders reflect the full diversity of talent pools?
  • Is all talent being paid equally for equal work?

3. Learn from diversity. 

The only way to ensure your organization’s talent systems aren’t perpetuating inequities is to modify or create systems using input from all employees. You must begin with the needs, wants, and aspirations of the most excluded group rather than assuming similarity, and then build your solutions around that.

4. Solve for one, benefit all. 

Science and experience show us—and features like closed captioning prove— that if we can make something work for the exception, we will end up with a better design for all, and a more inclusive organization.

3. Inclusive leadership: building an inclusive organization through actions and behaviors at every level

To build an equitable and inclusive workplace, organizations need to cultivate inclusive leaders at every level, from middle management to upper leadership.

What is an inclusive leader? Inclusive leaders are those who empower team members to take risks, manage their own development, and bring their authentic selves to work. In this way, they unleash individual potential, enabling all talent to contribute and excel.

We have identified the five disciplines and five traits that define inclusive leadership. These include:

  • Taking a collaborative approach as opposed to command and control
  • Operating transparently rather than behind closed doors
  • Being culturally agile, not tied to your own worldview
  • Fully embracing the vast diversity of today’s workforces
  • Creating a safe space for people to give the best of their talents

Inclusive leaders are essential for building inclusive organizations. Not only are they champions of behavioral and structural inclusion, but they also make inclusion a central factor in their teams, their culture and their workplace.

Read our article, “The Journey to Becoming a More Inclusive Leader”, to learn more about how you and others in your organization can be inclusive leaders.

4. Change management: building an inclusive organization step by step

Nobody can build a sustainably inclusive organization overnight. But it is possible to build one day by day, step by step, initiative by initiative.

The key is having effective change management. This ensures that whatever interventions you implement will definitively drive behavioral and structural changes—and that those changes stick.

This work cannot be delegated. The CEO must lead the change. Senior leaders need to be aligned and fully accountable for the change strategy and its implementation every step of the way.

Conclusion – building an inclusive organization takes courage and will

To be an inclusive and equitable organization, you need structural and behavioral inclusion interventions, from unconscious bias training to inclusive design.

At a more human level, you need courage and will.

Courage to ask if inequities are present and, when they are, to confront past wrongs and make them right. Courage to enter the environments of those who are different from you, see things from their perspective, and be curious about how they think, feel, and act. Courage to share stories of your own journey and the ways it has shaped how you view and live in the world.

After all that, courage also requires the will to see changes through, acknowledging that to become an inclusive organization, you need more than just one great training experience or high-profile initiative. You need the will to change entrenched but exclusionary cultural norms—and the courage to sustain those changes over time.

Note: At Korn Ferry, we believe that inclusion at an organization requires a diverse workforce and talent pool. To learn how to increase diversity, read our article “6 Steps to Increase Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace.”