Climbing the D&I ladder — 5 steps to being a better company

Photo by Pille Kirsi from Pexels

It’s been a good 5 months now since the spike in activity around Diversity & Inclusion, as well as the renewed focus of the Black Lives Matter movement. In June, we saw floods of diversity statements on company websites, black squares appeared all over instagram and inclusivity organisations were bombarded with requests. I’m really glad to see all of this enthusiasm for something that I believe is one of the most crucial world problems to solve. But many people, including myself, are asking whether all of this excitement has led to any real change?

Sadly, the outlook is pessimistic. — a company focused on making tech more inclusive by consulting and designing training solutions for businesses — recently did a poll of nearly 200 people in their network and asked whether people felt that their workplaces were more inclusive since the resurgence of BLM. The vast majority said that things had stayed the same, while some said things had gotten worse!

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Personally, I’ve been able to drive some change in my organisation but, in truth, it’s been slow. Nonetheless, my experience has taught me that one of the most important things when trying to instigate change is to clearly articulate where you’re starting from. So that’s where we started. We spent around a month interviewing people in our teams, conducting surveys and speaking with experts. This helped me understand our gaps and also shone some light on what good could look like. My next question was how do I visualise this in a compelling way?

That’s when I created ‘The D&I Ladder’.

What is The D&I Ladder?

The D&I Ladder is a tool to help companies understand how they stack up within a D&I maturity scale. Like us, most companies have been looking at their D&I strategies, or lack thereof, and admitting that they’re not doing enough. We were no different. But one of our big questions was how do we turn good intentions of wanting to do more into action?

To answer this question, I adapted the Danish Design Ladder, which is used to show how mature an organisation is in terms of design capability, to help my company to understand where we are today in terms of D&I, and importantly, what we can do to move up the ladder. Naturally, I called it The D&I Ladder.

Graphic designed and created by me (Natalie Pearce)

The D&I Ladder is made up of 5 stages, starting with minimal D&I activity through to D&I being so core to an organisation that it’s infiltrating every part of the business. Let’s go through each of the stages to find out what they mean and see where your company might fit in.

Stage 1: Little to no D&I

In the very first stage of The D&I Ladder, diversity and inclusion are invisible parts of company. No one is responsible for creating and implementing D&I initiatives. Any positive changes that do happen are by chance and the perspectives of underrepresented people play little or no role in them.

Graphic designed and created by me (Natalie Pearce)

I’d like to hope that there’d be no companies that sit on this step of the ladder, especially in this climate, but sadly I think that’s wishful thinking. At this stage, the best thing that you can do is to learn. If you, or your management team, don’t believe that there is a problem then the ladder isn’t going to help you. Research your industry, see what your direct competitors are doing, listen to your teams and, of course, your customers. It’s time to start listening, learning and show radical empathy for others.

Stage 2: D&I as CSR

In the next stage, D&I is viewed exclusively through the lenses of corporate social responsibility activities, such as volunteering, charitable work and donations. Those who get involved feel motivated and passionate about the activities they do, and they get to walk away with that warm and fuzzy feeling due to the sense of ‘giving back’. However, these activities tend to be ad hoc and infrequent — for example, employees might have one or a handful of days a year for volunteering efforts. CSR also has virtually no direct impact on the wider business, except for maybe a fluffy statement on their corporate website about how they support local communities. As a whole, D&I is largely seen as an added extra or a nice to have, rather than something that is bringing about real change.

Graphic designed and created by me (Natalie Pearce)

If this sounds like your company, I’d suggest asking questions about why you support CSR initiatives and attempt to explore reasons over and above that it’s the ‘right thing to do’. In your teams, you could start to explore how you could use the skills you’re hired for to do good in the world so that there is a direct link to your business. For example, at SPARCK, our pro bono work involves using our design, strategy and innovation skills to support different communities, such as mentoring individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds or, as we recently did with the Mentor Black Business programme, providing access to our expertise for underrepresented founders and entrepreneurs. But further than this, I would want to find out two things: first, how can you make the work you do in the community less ad hoc and longer term, and second, how can your business implement a position that protects underrepresented groups inside your company, which leads us onto stage 3.

Stage 3: D&I as policy

By the time we get to stage 3, we see D&I featured as part of the company’s policy, expressed in business terms around what the company does and does not tolerate with regards to treatment of their staff. It’s primarily upheld by the HR or people teams, who are responsible for supporting the business when breaches of policy arise. It’s commonplace for these teams to also arrange ad hoc, or sometimes recurring, events and training on D&I, which are used to reinforce the policy or to respond to patterns of behaviour that they wish to change.

Graphic designed and created by me (Natalie Pearce)

To be clear, this isn’t a bad stage to be at. In theory, policies are designed to protect individuals from discrimination in all forms. The issue is that the extent to which these policies truly protect people in practice is debatable. Whether policies work or not depends on victims of discrimination raising their concerns, which is easier said than done. There are countless stories of victims reporting their experiences and receiving micro-aggressions or gaslighting in response. This can fuel a culture of silence, rather than one of inclusion and psychological safety.

However, let’s assume that you work for a company that does take its policy seriously, which I hope many of us do. In this case, while I’ll say that it’s great that there is protection against bias and discrimination, I’ll also point out that a policy-based approach is exclusively reactive. It’s designed so that when issues arise, action is taken, whether that’s through a new training course, an update to policy or disciplinary action. Therefore, my question to you would be how can you take this one step further and become proactive in your approach to D&I? To do this, you’ll need a strategy.

For full transparency, I assessed SPARCK to be at stage 3. We had a policy and broad brush diversity statement. We used our policy to protect our people and had a zero tolerance stance to discrimination which I’m confident we upheld. We did the occasional bit of CSR or pro bono work which was always impactful and rewarding. But, importantly, we lacked any form of strategy.

Stage 4: D&I as strategy

At this stage, D&I is seen as a key strategic driver that enables the company to reach its goals. The company will most likely have a D&I representative, or even a team, who will work closely with the company’s owners and management to rethink key business processes, either completely or in part. The key focus here is on D&I in relation to the company’s business vision, where the company will focus on taking clear action, often joining external bodies or pledges for accountability and shared learning.

Graphic designed and created by me (Natalie Pearce)

In my opinion, it’s at this stage that you start to see real change. If you view D&I as a core strategic driver, rather than a nice to have, this sends a strong message across your business about what is considered to be important. Having a clear D&I strategy, that is visible to your team, let’s your employees know what the direction of the business is. It’s an invitation for them to get involved, or at least it should be positioned as such. Another benefit is that a strategy is a benchmark which with you can measure yourself against. You can set yourself, and your teams, objectives that align to your strategy and track progress. After all, what gets measured, gets done.

If you want to shift from policy to strategy, my advice would be to start from within. Conduct an inclusion survey with your team (there are tonnes of templates online to steal) to understand where your gaps are. We did this within SPARCK and it highlighted to us that we need to focus on recruitment, training and career development. At the same time, you need to dig deep and articulate why becoming a more diverse and inclusive organisation is the right thing to do, and the value it’ll bring your company and teams. And, to be clear, this isn’t a question — the answer is that it will always be beneficial — but being clear on why will become your reason for doing more in this space, and act as an anchor when things go off course.

Stage 5: D&I as organisational transformation

Finally, we have the stage where D&I is at the core of an organisations structure, their business model and, most importantly, the company culture. It sits horizontally and vertically across the business, with D&I roles on the board and in most teams. At this level, D&I is truly embedded in the culture, all employees understand how it impacts their work and how they can contribute to the whole. D&I is considered at every level and in every decision.

Graphic designed and created by me (Natalie Pearce)

This is really the gold standard in terms of inclusive organisations. While this would be a personal ambition of mine to work for a company like this, I’ll be honest that this level will not be for everyone. For many, having D&I as strategy will be enough. However, for the ambitious and truly purpose-driven businesses out there, this should be the ultimate goal.

In all honesty, I don’t know what to advise for this one just yet. Currently, my team and I are focused on stage 4. But I’m hopeful that one day I’ll be in a space where this stage will be the standard, and not the exception. Until then, my best suggestion would be to get in the experts. Speak to the many, many incredible organisations that are driving change in the D&I space, and make sure that you go for the ones that are founded and led by diverse leaders. Remember, lived experience always beats theory. The companies I’m currently working with are Hustle Crew, YSYS, BYP Network, Fearless Futures, Create Jobs, Generation Success and Mentor Black Business.

From good intentions to action

I hope you found The D&I Ladder as useful as we have in assessing how we stack up, and I hope that it gives you some clarity about where and how to focus your efforts.

For us at SPARCK, we’re focusing our energy in the following areas:

  1. Building a culture of inclusion.
    This involves supporting the existing diversity within our team. We were really proud that we scored so highly for belonging in our team survey, but we still continue to focus on making sure that everyone is valued for their differences and feels like they can contribute fully, be heard, seen and respected for their diverse perspectives. We are taking time to self-reflect and build awareness, while also actively seeking to educate ourselves collectively through training.
  2. Increasing diversity through recruitment.
    This means constructively reviewing and reconsidering recruitment initiatives and potentially implementing new recruitment policies to increase the diversity of applicants that are considered for new roles. We have held a series of workshops reviewing our recruitment approach, highlighting pain points, needs and opportunities for improvement. We now have a backlog of actions that we’ll be taking to improve how we hire, starting with trials of sharing job ads in diverse communities which we’ve started with YSYS, Hustle Crew and BYP Network.
  3. Contributing to improving the pipeline of diverse talent.
    This involves supporting grassroots organisations and engaging with community action through mentoring and education programmes. We decided to get stuck right in with this one, supporting multiple initiatives including running workshops for Mentor Black Business, conducting research for Generation Success’ Equality Pledge and becoming a Delivery Partner for a Digital Product Design mentoring programme in collaboration with YSYS and Create Jobs. We’re now exploring how we turn our experience into a longer term, sustainable and scaleable programme for 2021.

Let’s take our good intentions and turn them into actions, together.

About the author

Nat is a strategic designer, with hands-on experience leading projects across all stages of the design lifecycle with a range of clients including Insights, Amnesty International, DVSA, Fidelity, HSBC, ITV and Pizza Hut.

Nat prides herself on her adaptability, helping her clients to bring clarity and narrow in on the right vision, strategies and cultures for their future. As a dedicated advocate for equality, diversity and inclusion, she understands how to bring diverse teams together to create productive and creative spaces where innovation can thrive.

Nat started her career in digital banking before joining SPARCK in 2016, shortly after it had launched. During her time there, she helped to shape and grow the company into a mature organisation, most notably by building and embedding a high performing, innovative and inclusive culture. As a dedicated people leader, Nat has proven her ability to motivate people to an aligned mission and build an effective culture where people grow and excel.

Nat now helps purpose-driven companies to design their vision, strategies and cultures to help them grow their impact in the world.

I help companies design purpose-driven strategies, cultures & services that grow their impact in the world⚡️

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