Office gossip, HR generalisations

Why your HR ‘throw-aways’ are damaging your company’s inclusion efforts


We’ve all been guilty of generalising, but if we’re serious about creating an inclusive culture then we need to challenge common HR assumptions and be more open to unfamiliar perspectives.

3rd Mar 2020

Young people are too sensitive. They seem to require constant feedback. This is a workplace not a wellbeing retreat. 

Older people don’t understand social media. We need them to change otherwise they will become irrelevant. 

Men in our organisation need to learn how to be more emotionally intelligent. 

Managers can’t be trusted to make their own decisions without strong guidance from HR.

You can’t get rid of the hierarchy because nothing would get done.

People who work remotely could be doing anything when they are out of sight – who knows what they get up to?

Finance don’t care about people like we do.

Introverts need to be more confident.

Extroverts need to listen when introverts speak.

People don’t like change.

You’re always going to get some people who won’t participate…

How does it feel to see it in writing? Just some of the throw-away comments I’ve heard over the years, and I’m sure you have too. Maybe you’ve uttered a few of these yourselves. 

And while we might assure ourselves that we are open-minded, that we are pro-diversity, that we are working towards a more inclusive environment where race, gender, age, sexual preference and different politics become irrelevant, we are still human beings and we bring our assumptions with us every day. 

With these little throw-away comments we show that we are happy to generalise, to club people together into categories and reinforce subtle, and often widely accepted, generalisations about people. 

But if we are serious about the benefits of a rich, diverse and inclusive environment we need to spot those throw-aways and ask ourselves some questions about them. 

How often do you get out of your HR bubble and go to a tech conference, or read a newspaper that takes a political standpoint that differs from your own, or chat to people who have vastly different world views to you?

The HR echo chamber

HR is typically a lovely place to be. We are, in the main, people-people. We care. We want people to have a happy working experience and create environments where they can do their best work without losing their humanity along the way.

In my previous article I talked about having an HR philosophy and the importance of HR standing for something in the business that other parts of the business may not prioritise to the same extent. 

The danger in any team however is ‘group think’. “We look alike, we dress alike, we walk alike, we talk alike” (to quote the old Fred Astaire number) and we rarely challenge these perspectives because they underpin why we do what we do. 

What if we’re wrong? What if you can have a perfectly successful business without HR policy? What if introverts simply do make better employees? What if only some of our younger employees like continual feedback (just like some of our older employees) and trying to adapt our companies’ management style to Gen Y and Gen Z employees is actually unhelpful? 

These are uncomfortable questions to ask but if we really want diversity then we have to question the assumptions we make in HR, the categories we happily put people in for simplicity and as a shorthand to colleagues who see the world largely as we do. 

Exposure to the outside world

When I address audiences in my keynote conference speech I suggest that leaders think like CEOs, that they think outside the comfort blanket of their depth of knowledge to gain breadth of knowledge. 

For HR leaders this means stepping outside of HR and seeing the business from different angles – finance, IT, product development, sales, operations etc.

It means stepping even further back and seeing the organisation as part of a wider industry. What is happening in the industry today and tomorrow that might influence us?

It means going even further back and seeing the trends globally, outside of our industry. What’s happening in the world and how might that impact the space we take in our industry and therefore how our business needs to adapt? 

If we remain curious and catch ourselves when we categorise people we become more inclusive. 

How often do you get out of your HR bubble and go to a tech conference, or read a newspaper that takes a political standpoint that differs from your own, or chat to people who have vastly different world views to you?

And I don’t mean exposing yourself to difference so you can judge it or argue your perspective, but exposing yourself to difference in order to change your own view and gain a broader perspective. 

If you want to really understand exclusion, try muscling in on discussions with groups that seem very different to you. Go to a Big Data conference and try to join in with breakout sessions, or join an entrepreneurs group even though you’re from big business, or go on an Extinction Rebellion march or sit in on a local council meeting run by politicians of a different persuasion than you.

Not only will you be exposed to new viewpoints and start to challenge the boxes you put people in to, but you’ll experience first-hand what it is to feel out of place. 

Maybe inclusivity is more urgent than diversity? 

Talking recently to a specialist in diversity and inclusion, it was proposed that our focus in HR should be inclusivity first.

You can hire people from different backgrounds and create support groups and networks within your business for those people. You can adapt your policies to be fair to all and you can run training workshops to help people develop the personal skills to operate in your company culture. But those people will still leave in disproportionate numbers or feel limited in their influence if they aren’t included

The great thing about inclusivity is that it helps us all. You don’t need to be from a marginalised group to benefit from an inclusive culture. This is why I mentioned the assumptions we make about introverts and extroverts. These workstyle preferences cut across gender, race and age. If we think about how to welcome introverts and extroverts, and if we adapt how we hold meetings, generate engagement, develop ideas and make decisions to allow for all preferences along the I/E scale then we are being more inclusive.  

If we learn how to listen better – listening with an open mind ready to change our view or broaden our perspective when we are exposed to new ways of thinking and seeing the world – then we will become more inclusive. 

If we develop a culture where people can have a healthy argument then we become more inclusive. If we remain curious and catch ourselves when we categorise people we become more inclusive. 

While this is much harder than having a pro-diversity recruitment policy, or setting up a network for ‘women of colour’ in our business, or doing sensitivity training for managers it forces us to think differently about our job, ourselves, our inter-relationships with others and how we bring about change. And isn’t that the whole point of diversity? 

You can read more about Blaire’s Leadership philosophy and ask yourself some thought-provoking questions by downloading her free e-book, Punks in Suits, full of helpful prompts and exercises  


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