Meaningful inclusion under the spotlight at HR Indaba Conversation

HR heavy hitters established that diversity and inclusion actually need to foster belonging above all else.

In an invigorating conversation powered by Talent Smith Technology at the HR Indaba Conversation, HR professionals and business executives came together to examine what real inclusion looks like.

While diversity, equity and inclusion remain popular buzzwords in HR practices and general organisational culture, they are often steeped in lip service, instead of truly enhancing and uplifting the differences between employees and effectively eradicating unconscious bias. It was concluded that in order for inclusion to be meaningful, it is ultimately about creating an environment that enables people to feel valued, engaged, heard and satisfied.

S’ne Magagula, CHRO at Tiger Brands, shared a fun approach to identifying the differences between diversity, inclusion and belonging, but first noted how important it is to engender a sense of belonging for everyone in an organisation.

She shared the widely documented Verna Meyers’ perspective that diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance, but belonging is feeling free to dance the way you want to. “When you belong, you feel free to express yourself the way you want to and you feel accepted in the organisation for expressing your individuality,” added S’ne. She expanded further by explaining that diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice but belonging is having that voice be heard.


Tamara Parker, CEO at Mercer Africa, mentioned that while South Africa has legislation in place to address diversity, inclusion and equity must not be left behind, “Inclusion is about the experience you have when you’re in an organisation. We all have scorecards, tick boxes and tools to show you where your diversity sits, but they won’t give you anything about inclusion,” she said.

She believes that inclusion needs to be driven from a leadership perspective. Tamara mentioned that a survey in sub-Saharan Africa indicated that 88 percent of organisations have diversity and inclusion as something on their score cards, but only 56 percent knew how they were going to achieve it.

Mercer has leadership commitment and knows that inclusion doesn’t only drive bottom line but reduces reputational risk, such as guarding against releasing a cringeworthy advert because no one on the decision-making panel would have a lens different enough to flag it as problematic.

How can leaders be more inclusive?
Thato Mmaditla
, HR director at Youth Employment Service (YES), is a big proponent of strength-based coaching that helps a leader, middle manager or individual contributor to become more inclusive. YES builds awareness around the lens one comes to the workplace with and uses it to implement a coaching process, “People come into the workplace with an understanding of being different, but it’s more about embracing those differences to understand each other and meet each other halfway,” she said

Thato asserted that people are more inclusive when they are aware of what their values and beliefs are: “You can become more intentional about ensuring that the next person has a sense of belonging and a social identity,” she explained. Through coaching, they build self-awareness and mastery that ensures people are all collectively working towards inclusivity and belonging.

Working with a youth-centric entity also enables Thato to understand the nuances of power dynamics when implementing real inclusion and the cultural implications, such as a junior professional learning that it’s okay to look at senior in the eye. She said that because at least 45 percent of the workforce in South Africa is made up of youth, and many of them come from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, it’s not possible to purely look at skills set, but also make room for culture disparities.

Youth Employment Service has an external coaching programme for executives and an internal programme that coaches each individual person based on their strengths and talents. The methodology they adopt is about understanding what people are naturally talented in, placing them for purpose irrespective of qualifications, and looking at how to use that talent to have the necessary conversations.

Tamara said she believed it is necessary to break down control and command culture and democratise the workplace, even when phenomena like the “old boys’ club” exist. “In organisations that have truly democratised the workplace, they are able to push accountability downwards to create teams for innovation and sparking ideas, while having a leadership that’s prepared to listen to that,” she said. This filters conversations and gives opportunities to diverse groups of people, while allowing them to run with some things and be accountable for them.

Spheres of diversity
It was also noted that while some of the main spheres through which diversity is measured such as gender, race, disability and sexual orientation are highly important, there are others that are overlooked, such as generational diversity. “We want to ensure that you have enough young people in the workforce who understand the younger demographic in the market and give us those insights without us having to do market research,” said S’ne.

S’ne said that skills set diversity is also crucial for optimising an organisation: “Often the temptation is to work and innovate in silos. Innovation and development are the lifeblood of business, especially to outpace competition. We need to form collaborative teams that surpass the organisations structures and boundaries,” she said. Tiger Brands has since started a process in partnership with Deloitte to drive innovation through cross-functional teams and get them to naturally spark ideas – straight through to innovation. This is to ensure that different mindsets and skills sets are there to challenge and drive each other.


Tackling uncomfortable dialogue
It was highlighted that it is vital to unlearn unconscious biases, like how sometimes people look to women to make coffee before a meeting, and difficult conversations were needed in order to address that.

Thato explained that is important to consider distributed leadership and drive cultural changes by ensuring that everyone in a business feels like they have a voice. She suggested real change would be driven by the acknowledgement that everyone comes into an environment with different experiences and filters – and being aware of it at all levels.

Tamara acknowledged that such conversations can create discomfort, defensiveness and victimhood, but regards them to be important anyway. S’ne suggested getting a specialist to help deal with biases at a deep level. “It is around looking at perceptions and filters that go beyond a typical conversation,” she said. All of these interactions will require maturity and an open mind.

It is best to promote diversity of thought and practices and not to insist on everyone in the organisation having the same mindset and beliefs, the panellists agreed It seemed to be a shared sentiment that in order for an organisation to be considered fully inclusive, it needs to be representative. Thato implored people to become more aware of their own values and beliefs in order to take accountability for themselves and each other.

S’ne concluded that HR’s role goes beyond finding and retaining talent, but is also about creating inspiring environments that cater to everyone, and cultures that allow everyone to thrive.