6th December 2017

D&I - The Line Manager Complication

Are line managers accidentally preventing diversity and inclusion? D&I is now more than just a buzzword. Employers in the US and the UK are now forced by legislation and social pressures to look closely at their workforce composition and act upon unrepresentative findings.

Larger organisations detail their diversity and inclusion strategies and actions in their annual reports. Even smaller employers are re-evaluating their recruitment procedures in order to remove barriers and attract the best talent.

The delivery of diversity and inclusion is mainly the responsibility of the HR function or a subsection within, backed by the board. This top-down delivery structure ensures that messages, objectives and behaviours are consistent. However, could it be hampering employee engagement and more importantly outcomes?

A lot has been written about underrepresented groups in the workplace. This includes BME, women, and being from a less privileged background. What is consistent across all of these characteristics is that many organisations are outwardly diverse but demonstrate poor distribution. Organisations are whiter, posher and more male at higher levels of the hierarchy.


Diversity and inclusion represent two component parts which are quite different. Neither part requires the other.  Both parts are nonetheless required to leverage the advantages of a diverse workforce that drive growth. Whilst diversity can be forced from above, especially in the short term, creating an inclusive environment which embraces diversity, retains all talented individuals and removes barriers to progression requires cultural buy-in at all levels of the organisation.

This is where line managers become relevant. Line managers are the backbone of organisations. They ensure that business as usual is completed. They work to achieve their organisation’s revenue and cost budgets and deliver organisational stability. These traits and behaviours make a line manager good at their role. However they are often opposite to the traits required to embed diversity and inclusion at the lower levels of an organisation. Creation of a diverse and inclusive workplace requires change and disruption. Line managers hate change and disruption. They are experts at maintaining stability and delivering the status quo.

To explain how the exemplary line manager - the ideal pair of safe hands and the lifeblood of the organisation – inhibits and prevents diversity and inclusion we must look to organisational psychology. Cognitive (or unconscious) biases were first introduced by psychologists Amos Tverskey and Daniel Kahneman in 1973. They identify the processes by which we make instant judgements on people and situations. This evolutionary “gut feeling” has been a major factor in making humanity the dominant species on this planet. However, its impact in the workplace is to amplify the voices of in groups and majority opinions. Unconscious biases also predict the outcome of an action using one’s experiences rather than through an objective assessment.

Why D&I isn't working

The line manager, especially an experienced one, makes a number of their day to day decisions using these snap judgements. These small decisions may include giving an important task to the person they know will do a job in a certain way. Unfortunately this can snowball into a larger problem where employees who are not part of the line manager’s in group may not get the opportunity to show their talent. Worse, their success may be attributed to the impact of another individual in the team. Job allocation combines with mini-me syndrome, which is the tendency to favour those who are similar to or remind us of ourselves. All too often promotion and progression favours those who are most like their line managers.

Mini Me

Diverse talent may be coming into the business through the opportunities created by board directives and the HR function. However, failing to engage line managers with the business benefits of diversity and inclusion means that organisations struggle to create the inclusive environment required for that same diverse talent to flourish and progress. The macro level top-down messaging around the importance of diverse workforces is having little impact on the micro level of individual teams. Line managers need greater education and engagement. Otherwise organisations will continue to see low progression and retention of diverse talent.


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