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Education key to successful inclusion strategy

Companies are increasingly turning to specialists to ensure they are following best practice

“We’ve moved beyond ‘tolerance’, which denotes ‘putting up with’ difference.” Photograph: iStock

Diversity is no longer just a polite buzzword for most Irish companies. Good workplaces are changing: women are no longer willing to tolerate a lack of fair treatment or promotional opportunities, the faces in the office are not all white and companies are more keen than ever before to embrace and support their LGBTI+ staff.

“We’ve moved beyond ‘tolerance’, which denotes ‘putting up with’ difference,” says Paula Lonergan, an organisational development consultant specialising in workplace wellbeing and resilience with Irish Times Training. “Organisations are shifting towards appreciating diversity at all levels.”

It’s not just about good optics, either: diverse workplaces produce diverse – and relevant – ideas. Getting it right, however, is important: if it’s not thought through, there’s a risk that companies will, inadvertently or not, patronise or insult their workforce. Increasingly, there is a need for specialists to ensure they are following best practice. But what is best practice and how do companies get it right?

“We are seeing more companies hiring D&I managers or co-ordinators, and they will usually have formal knowledge that they acquired through a designated course or learning programme,” says Lonergan. “These courses are usually directed at people with high levels of experience.”


Irish Times Training is one of the providers offering courses in D&I, with Open Minds, the Irish Centre for Diversity and EY being among some of the other providers. Many companies, especially larger businesses, run internal courses for staff.

In 2018, Dr Linda Yang joined the UCD College of Business, where she offers dedicated intercultural support for all faculty and staff members. She is also the programme leader for the intercultural development programme for all postgraduate students at Smurfit Graduate Business School. Her experience is instructive not just for higher education, but for all workplace environments.

“Ireland is the European hub for over 1,000 leading multinational companies,” she says. “Immigration and demographic changes have made Ireland more diverse than ever before. The number of international students in Irish higher education institutions has more than doubled since 2010, and it will keep increasing. We need to consider diversity and inclusion and also provide support for faculty and staff to develop their cultural competence.”

A study carried out by Yang, with academic colleagues, showed that the aims of internationalisation – gaining global outlook, developing intercultural competence, working in multicultural teams and so on – are not being realised by simply increasing participation rates in study abroad programmes. And it’s not just about being inclusive – everyone benefits from diverse and inclusive teams at work, and D&I adds value to a business.

‘Key importance’

“The most recent Culture at Work global survey shows that intercultural skills and competencies are of key importance to employers,” says Yang. “Domestic students, however, are not maximising the benefit of living, working and studying in an international environment and international students experience limited meaningful interactions with domestic students.”

Companies tend to come for training either because issues of discrimination have arisen or because they want to futureproof their organisation, says Lonergan. “I have also been approached by smaller organisations who might have encountered an issue with diversity and inclusion, or who wish to rewrite their policies to embed it across their entire hierarchy and management structure.”

What exactly do these courses include? None of us are without prejudice or preconceptions, but being aware of them – and challenging ourselves on them – is vital.

“The first thing people have to approach is taking the unconscious bias and make it conscious,” says Lonergan. “I ask them what our motivations are and why this is important to them. Is it about public image or is it about their deep-seated values. Cultural competency – such as knowing a little about India if you have a few employees from India – isn’t enough anymore, and it can easily lead to stereotyping. Appreciating and harnessing difference is more important.”

For a busy manager, is D&I training really worth the effort? “The upshot is a creative environment where employees are safe to be themselves; it means a person is not afraid to open their mouth, and they can speak and know they will be listened to,” Lonergan says. “CEOs and leaders know that this is the way forward and managers who listen have had higher levels of success.”

Case study:

Mercer: When women thrive

In 2012, Mercer took a step back and decided to take an in-depth look at the status of women in the consultancy firm. It was the start of a five-year journey towards gender parity, improving the pipeline of talent and, ultimately, attaining EDGE (Economic Dividends for Gender Equality), the leading global assessment methodology and certification standard for gender equality. Education and training were vital parts of the process.

“We turned our own expertise inward and looked closely at the status of inclusion for women at our own firm,” says Martine Ferland, president and chief executive at Mercer. “Using our client-facing workforce analytics, we examined our own data and found that, like many, we too were struggling with representation and pay. Once we identified our issues, leadership committed to a D&I strategy and, importantly, took accountability for ensuring change.

“Our strategy predominantly focused on continuous ‘implicit and explicit bias’ training for our managers in order to mitigate skewed pay and representation. We also helped managers recognize bias in real time and showed them how to strip bias from recruitment, talent development and performance management. While we still have work to do, we have shaped positive internal change and have become more empathetic partners with our D&I clients.”