The CIPD’s reports on Race Inclusion recommended that people professionals should support senior leaders to lead the way in initiating positive conversations about race, to be clearly visible as part of the I&D strategy and to communicate the importance of race and ethnicity in the organisation. CIPD research also advised that HR develop policies and practices to build trust in senior management and use leaders as champions and role models for implementation of priority actions on race equality.

To support people professionals to act upon these recommendations, we have produced this short guide offering advice on how HR can engage with senior leaders on inclusion and anti-racism strategy.


In the report Building Inclusive Workplaces, the CIPD defines 'inclusion' as being ‘about individual experience and allowing everyone at work to contribute and feel a part of an organisation, not the practice of ‘including’ diverse groups in the workplace.’ The report concludes that ‘Organisations need to take a systemic approach to inclusion, appreciating that inclusion isn’t about allowing ‘different’ people to ‘fit in’. Instead, inclusion is about creating an environment where everyone is appreciated for being individual.’

In order to take a systemic approach to inclusion, it is necessary to have a strategy. Having an inclusion strategy is an essential business practice that, when prioritised by high-performing organisations, builds environments that help their employees thrive.

Inclusion strategies allow companies to attract top talent, increase employee engagement and facilitate the decision-making process - factors that result in a better financial return.

Inclusion strategies are often created by HR. While this is a good place for them to be formed, it’s critical that HR gain senior management buy in and engagement with the inclusion strategy, as without it one or more of these five adverse consequences may occur:

  • Reactivity
  • Much inclusion activity is a reaction to what is happening in the media, business world and societal trends. When it comes to inclusion, a reactive approach may be viewed as ‘tokenistic’, for example, when a company is doing something (such as attempting to attract diverse job applicants) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly. Tokenistic activity does not result in meaningful change, because there is no commitment, strategy or consistency behind it. However, with senior management buy in, a proactive and strategic approach can be taken that drives real change.

  • De-prioritisation
  • Inclusion is about culture, and so needs to be aligned with the organisation’s strategy, mission and values and be included in senior leader conversations. Inclusion requires long term and ongoing commitment, and should be consistently at the top of the agenda. HR aren’t always included in Senior Leadership Team meetings and without senior leaders’ buy in and commitment inclusion can end up being a ‘nice to have’ when there is time to discuss it, rather than an essential and integrated priority. The role of line managers in delivering inclusion initiatives is also essential as they will be responsible for implementation on the ground. Therefore, ensuring their buy-in is equally as important to ensure their priorities are aligned with corporate I&D goals. More information on the role of line managers in tackling racism can be found in our guide on anti-racism for line managers.

  • HR isolation
  • Although HR may create the inclusion strategy, it shouldn't be isolated to being their responsibility. Employees at all levels need to take responsibility for driving the inclusion strategy forward. When senior leaders demonstrate commitment to inclusion and role model inclusive behaviours, it reinforces HR’s efforts. For example a senior leader championing a particular employee resource group demonstrates their sense of responsibility for leading and sponsoring inclusion.

  • Lagging behind
  • Prioritising I&D is morally and ethically the right thing to do and increasingly is expected to be a key organisational aim. Results will be impacted without senior leaders’ buy in, with a likely drop in innovation, collaboration, creativity and ultimately the businesses bottom line, as well as increased competition in attracting the best talent.

  • Lack of data
  • To be successful, diversity and inclusion has to be a top-to-bottom business strategy and not just an HR priority. Senior leader buy-in will enable a joined-up effort, that is companywide and can measure the data gaps as well as progress made.

So, what can HR professionals do to engage leaders in different areas of inclusion and tackling racism in the workplace? Here are three ways to take your engagement to the next level.

Be a critical friend to senior leaders

Where HR is becoming increasingly talent-focused and more involved in the recruitment process, there are opportunities to prompt the organisation to think in the right way. This could be widening your search for talent by using search companies that specifically focus on this, and by connecting your recruitment strategy plan with your inclusion strategy.

It’s important to challenge senior leaders, especially if they are reluctant to change or are unconsciously making biased decisions. For example, if a senior leader has decided that everyone in the company is completely happy and inclusion is already embedded, you could ask them if they’ve tried to refute thar idea, and what they’ve come up with.

HR should also intentionally role-model inclusive behaviour in their day-to-day role to help senior leaders understand what inclusion looks like. The CIPD recognises working inclusively as a core behaviour for all people professionals in the Profession Map, the international benchmark for the people profession.

Obtain and act on data

Having evidence is a powerful tool of persuasion to engage your senior leaders. If you are at the start of your journey to developing your inclusion strategy you may not have quantitative data, but qualitative data is powerful too. A tool like the CIPD Inclusive health check could be a starting point to engage your senior leaders to find out more about the evidence for understanding and measuring inclusion. Some companies have a physical or virtual anonymous post box where employees share their lived experience within the company, and this can bring to light the need for senior leaders' full engagement.

If you have an annual staff survey you could incorporate some questions related to inclusion within it, or you could create an externally visible scorecard to measure progress including metrics for recruiting, promotion rates, pay levels, turnover, participation in employee resource groups, and supplier diversity. The external visibility is a great way for senior leaders to show commitment and be accountable.

Focus on structural change

Many companies engage in a number of initiatives to drive inclusion, instead of considering the structural change that is needed to make inclusion happen. Structural inclusion is about looking at making long-term structural changes rather than investing in tactical short inclusion wins.

HR can use data to examine each area of the company and uncover policies that are unintentionally un-inclusive, looking at everything from your company’s dress code to its job adverts, to who gets recruited into senior roles. They can use this data to drive policies that will identify talent and diverse individuals to take the organisation forward.

Sometimes it’s not what is written in policies or what is said that dictates company culture. For example if no managers work part-time, or there’s no one in a senior role whose first language isn’t English, you might have to delve deeply in the company culture. Once you have uncovered these unintentionally un-inclusive written or unwritten rules, you can drive forward changes from the top with senior leaders commitment.

These structural changes are a good use of senior leaders' expertise, as they can consider and ensure they align with the wider strategy, vision, mission and values of the company.

Tips for overcoming challenges

Implementing any change is always a challenge. Individuals can be reluctant to change, distrustful of motives or unsure of how to make change happen. Here are some tips on how to overcome these challenges when engaging senior leaders in the inclusion strategy:

Nurturing trust

In the CIPD report Where has all the trust gone, it was found that the way in which change was communicated made a difference to the level of trust present. HR can play a role in helping senior leaders engage in a discursive way with employees on what inclusion looks like in the business and how it connects with the company values. It’s about being open, honest and transparent with no spin.

Engaging in difficult conversations

Avoiding difficult conversations is a real barrier to engagement with inclusion strategy. HR has a role to play in supporting senior leaders with the preparation and education needed before the conversation. For example, helping them consider how to create a safe space for the conversation, have clear intentions and allow for compassionate sharing, the exploration of ideas and, ultimately, learning for all parties involved. HR can also offer to help them unpack the learning from the conversation afterward.

Being a visible ally

HR can help senior leaders demonstrate their commitment to being an ally to minority colleagues in an active and visible way and help advance the inclusion strategy through some of the following methods:

  • Sponsoring ethnic minority colleagues (ie establishing a helping relationship in which senior leaders use their seniority, expertise and connections to advocate for someone in a minority group)
  • Taking part in reverse mentoring (the opposite format of traditional mentoring, where the senior leader is mentored by a younger or more junior employee, in this case from a minority group) 
  • Championing employee resource groups (ERGs provide support to their members, to create a sense of belonging that may not exist elsewhere in the organisation, to share their experiences with the organisation if they choose and deem it appropriate, and to provide feedback, recommendations and support on how to dismantle systemic and structural barriers that have hindered their development, progression and retention in the organisation)

Developing knowledge and confidence

Senior leaders may find it difficult to be vulnerable and admit to not knowing enough about inclusion. HR can play the role of trusted confidant to senior leaders, creating a safe space for them to learn, reflect and admit mistakes. Alternatively HR can connect senior leaders with an external coach who can provide a space for vulnerability, reflection and education. When the focus is on inclusion, an external coach from a minority group could provide additional insight.

Overcoming reluctance

There will always be people who are not immediately on board with the inclusion strategy, even when you've shared the business case and compelling data. In this situation the role of HR can be to help the senior leader connect with their ‘why’, by sharing why inclusion matters to them personally and helping the senior leader connect with their ‘why’ for inclusion also.

Remember that inclusion is all about cultural change. There is a lot that you can do to engage and gain commitment to inclusion strategy from your senior leaders, but there is no quick fix, it takes time, consistent focus and a strategic approach.

Jenny Garrett

Jenny Garrett OBE is an award-winning career coach, author and leadership trainer. Her books explore the empowerment of working women and women in leadership roles. Together with her team, she uses her years of experience in coaching and leadership to support women and leaders from ethnic minority backgrounds to progress at work. As well as supporting majority group leaders in making inclusion happen. She created the first Diverse Coach Directory in the UK and is also co-founder of a social enterprise Rocking Ur Teens which connects corporates with a pipeline of future talent.