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How To Effectively Implement Diversity And Inclusion At Work

Ayanda Zaca is the Founder and Managing Director at VITOVA, a strategy business that provides support to organisations in their diversity, inclusion, and equity work with a strong focus on communications. At its core, the business advocates for social justice and cohesion, particularly along racial and gender lines. Ayanda holds degrees in Marketing & Communication Management as well as Sports Science, both from the University of Pretoria.


Business leaders who believe in the Bible have an advantage when it comes to navigating the complexities of the multicultural nature of the modern marketplace. That is, if we remember that the gospel is not only for Sundays, but should find expression in and through our professional lives, in the 9-to-5 of everyday living.

For example, 1 Corinthians 2:16 states, “we have the mind of Christ”. This means that we not only have access to divine wisdom, but we also have the capacity to understand what others fundamentally need and to treat them accordingly – with acceptance, value, and dignity. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul provides many examples of what we can do to show Christ to the world and to one another (i.e., to demonstrate love and thereby live out the gospel). As believers, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him” (2 Peter 1:3). The Spirit empowers us to deal effectively with cultural complexities, and to act with faith and grace at work.

Diversity and inclusion at work

Although the costs of high employee turnover are well documented and understood, business leaders and Human Resources (HR) practitioners seldom make the causal link between employee turnover and their Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. This turnover implies that organisations are paying an unnecessary premium for their employees – a premium that is mostly camouflaged because it does not show up as a direct cost, or as a number that can be reported against a line item in financial reports.

Some organisations are legally required to diversify their workforce through (for example) the implementation of Employment Equity Plans and BBBEE-related activities, which are aimed at fostering greater participation by previously disadvantaged groups.

However, in many organisations HR neglects the inclusion elements – which are vital to the success of diversity efforts. Inclusion can be defined as ‘the practise or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised’. Some of the reasons why HR ignores inclusion are: because it is not a Key Performance Indicator, it is difficult to measure and report on, or because they simply have not been trained for it. Without a focus on inclusion, however, the implementation of diversity can cause problems worse than those of not embarking on diversity to begin with. In contrast, a good Diversity and Inclusion Strategy can reap multiple benefits for the organisational culture, and by extension, for its bottom line.

The impact of a poor diversity and inclusion strategy

Various multinational and respected companies have proven the business case for having a well-developed Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, and organisations that continue to ignore this do so at their own peril. Here are three examples that illustrate how a poor diversity and inclusion strategy increases the cost-to-company of an employee (State of the Global Workplace, Gallup Report 2017).

  1. Employees in work environments with low diversity and inclusion tend to be less productive

Productivity suffers when employees do not feel a sense of psychological safety. If there is low inclusion in diverse environments, employees do not feel understood, heard, or appreciated by one another and therefore cannot give their ‘full selves’ to their work. Some employees (especially the long-serving ones) can feel threatened and uncertain about how to act in a changing environment.

Having numerous and protracted meetings becomes necessary when there are low levels of understanding and trust in a team – meaning that productivity drops even lower. Though misunderstandings between different people are natural, it becomes problematic when people are forced to work together. Understanding and trust can be increased through facilitated conversations and opportunities to learn more about one another – for example through the W.A.L.K. model (referred to later) that aims to develop progressive understanding and empathy in the workplace.

  1. Employees in work environments with low diversity and inclusion tend to progress very slowly in the organisation, or not progress at all

One of the common consequences of a work environment with low inclusion, is that the leaders become comfortable with leading from their own unconscious biases. When they select employees to lead teams and projects, or when they make decisions on who to appoint or reward – they only select those who fit their preferred predisposition. If this goes unaddressed, these leaders contribute to unfairly promoting the progress of some, while unfairly stunting the progress of others.

This unfairness in opportunities can cause havoc in teams. Sometimes, those who are favoured start to falsely believe that they are better than other employees, and that they have progressed on merit alone. They can further contribute to the isolating and stunting of team members by withholding information and/or other opportunities to develop. They get the lion’s share of attention, training and development spend, practical work experience, as well as grace when mistakes are made.

The supposed ‘non-performers’ are left feeling unsatisfied, unchallenged, and unappreciated. Rather than focusing their energy on the real work at hand, they must expend energy on trying to survive in an environment that is perceived to be hostile to them. Some, of course, will leave the organisation, but some will stay. This is unfortunate from the organisation’s perspective, because it continues to pay full salaries to employees who are performing at reduced productivity, which can affect overall profitability by up to 33% (Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, McKinsey).

  1. Employees in work environments with low diversity and inclusion tend to be higher maintenance

When employees do not have a healthy sense of belonging at work, they become less engaged with the organisation’s vision, mission, and values. They start to operate in ‘survival’ mode and can become suspicious of their leaders and team members. Often, an ‘us versus them’ mentality starts seeping into the organisational culture. These dynamics are revealed by symptoms such as high levels of conflict, distrust and employees seeking to ‘cover their backs’. The resultant slack in productivity is often picked up by the ‘performers’, which causes a work overload on a few, and an uneven distribution of responsibility. The ‘us versus them’ mentality worsens, and becomes entrenched.

In all three cases the organisation bears the hidden costs of an increasingly toxic workplace – the costs of all-round lower productivity, the costs of increased absenteeism and/or burnout, the costs related to replacing employees, and the costs of getting new employees ‘up to speed’. More and more time is spent dealing with HR disciplinary matters, on tightening rules, enforcing policies and procedures, and ‘dealing with issues’ rather than getting the actual work done. In the long run, overheads increase, and profits decrease.

What can leaders do?

When leaders encounter such challenges, they tend to look at the individual employee and/or team and conclude that they are not performing up to standard or meeting expectations. However, leaders seldom look at themselves, or the environment that they have created or contributed to, to try and see where they may have failed the team, and what they can do to help employees bring their best selves to work.

Consider how the above three examples might be drastically improved if the leaders and HR practitioners spent more time asking themselves the following questions:

  • How can we foster more patience in our organisation?
  • What can we do to show more care and kindness to our employees?
  • Is there anything that we do that encourages envy among our teams, or erodes collaboration and mutual celebration?
  • How can we foster grace and humility (rather than boasting and pride) in our teams?
  • Simply put, how can we live out 1 Corinthians 13 in our organisations, so that our employees may know that we are His disciples?


Introducing the W.A.L.K. model

A CEO of a global mining company once told me that the reason most organisations fail at their diversity and inclusion is that they disassociate it from their overall organisational strategy. This is a profound statement, because in most engagements with issues pertaining to diversity, inclusion, belonging and transformation, leaders perceive it as a short-term project or a once-off event – and not as part of an overarching, cross-functional and integral part of their business strategy.

Many organisations will achieve some success with their diversity plans (partially because diversity is easier to implement and measure), but ignore how the employees being reported on feel, and how they experience the environment. To maintain and/or improve the diversity of the workplace, inclusion must supplement the diversity efforts. The challenge, as mentioned above, is that inclusion is often invisible and difficult to measure and track. The W.A.L.K. model takes this into account.

When effectively applied, this model can greatly improve the chances of successfully addressing the challenges in developing and implementing a diversity and inclusion strategy.

  1. Willingness

Leaders continually need to gauge and encourage the willingness of every person (including themselves) to embark and stay on the diversity and inclusion journey. Willingness cannot be forced on others, nor can it be manufactured for anyone else. It is founded on a deep sense of buy-in about a particular purpose.

One of the ways that leaders can foster their own and their employees’ willingness, is to constantly remind everyone of their organisation’s purpose. The case is easier to make if the vision and mission of the organisation aligns with, is supported by, and supports diversity and inclusion. Leaders must see (and be able to help their employees see) the connection between diversity and inclusion, and what the organisation does and why it does it.

Without the willingness of the majority (and particularly of the leaders), any and every diversity and inclusion effort will fail.

  1. Attention

Once there is a level of willingness throughout the organisation, leaders can start calling attention to certain elements that either promote or hamper diversity and inclusion. These elements include beliefs, behaviours, thought patterns, habits, assumptions, imagery, symbols, language, traditions, and rules that may be either covert or overt, intentional, or unintentional.

Calling attention to these elements is not intended to criticise or ridicule, but to create an understanding of the very real effects of these elements, and how they are interconnected with the culture of a workplace, and its overall performance. This increased understanding then needs to be turned into opportunities for learning.

  1. Learning

Without the willingness of leaders and employees, and without them being attentive to the elements in a changing environment, there can be no effective and positive learning. The purpose of this learning is to acquire knowledge and skills through facilitated experiences and conversations about diversity and inclusion. It includes the usual training about culture and gender dynamics, but also helps teams discuss issues that may be controversial and/or sensitive, in a constructive manner.

  1. Knowledge

As leaders and employees are encouraged to engage constructively, as they practise and become familiar with the elements relating to diversity and inclusion, this way of learning becomes familiar and more comfortable, eventually turning into institutional knowledge. Leaders need to put this knowledge into practise in their own engagements and demonstrate the desired behaviours and actions – so that the learning can become entrenched in the culture of the organisation. Only then will diversity and inclusion become sustainable, and all employees can feel a sense of belonging.


The effective implementation of a diversity and inclusion strategy, and the application of the W.A.L.K. model, must be supported by other organisational departments such as finance, HR and legal. Even better is when the diversity and inclusion strategy leads other strategies, so that leaders can fully harness the potential of their employees across the organisation.

Still, getting diversity and inclusion ‘right’ goes beyond the business benefits. Bible-believing business leaders should recognise that navigating this complex reality provides great opportunities for bringing the Gospel to work.

Ayanda Zaca

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