June 7, 2021

Diversity Competence and Inclusive Practices

In this article, I present what diversity competence looks like in practice. I draw on recent research that define diversity competence to show some examples of how leaders and employees can demonstrate diversity competence in today’s workplace, and provide strategies from best practices for getting started with diversity competence in your company or professional development.


The central part of my job as Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant consists in helping people feel more comfortable with having positive conversations around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. Often, organisations fail to even recognise the existing diversity or lack of diversity among their teams because employees and leaders don’t know how to talk about it. Some bad experiences may also often have left people with personal and moral wounds, and “once bitten, twice shy”, they are not keen on talking about what appears like a thorny topic.

Keeping conversations current when new terms and concepts are invented every day to reflect cultural changes, can seem an unreal utopia. Often we recognise that our culture has filled us with offensive, problematic, and misguided ideas about gender, race, sexuality and other characteristics. And the evolution of the racial narrative that leads to a constant revision of the language can make it difficult to override the fear to mistaken, or even worst to offend a colleague, a friend, a manager or a subordinate.

Training about diversity often raises awareness around diversity challenges, defines what inclusion is and talks about accessibility. The theoretical concept of “unconscious bias” is prevalent in most diversity training, but employees need practical knowledge to build and sustain diverse workplaces. Unfortunately, there is very little said to help people understand and recognise their active role in diversity challenges.

Why is Diversity Competence Important?

There is no point diversifying the workplace without implementing inclusive practices that promote diversity competence. Employers hire more “diverse” people, but often, they do so without integrating inclusive practices in day to day activities. This kind of strategy often is ignoring people’s discomfort and anxiety around diversity matters.

They validate a status-quo in the way people are working and interacting in the workplace. At the same time, we know that a new staff member with a protected characteristic will not stay if the organisation’s practices and policies do not reflect the organisation’s commitment to Diversity.

The concept of Diversity intelligence emerged from Dr Claretha Hughes work who argued, that while the use of certain skills can or should be optional, discrimination against employees belonging to protected groups should not be an option. Indeed, if laws, policies or rules are not respected and there are no consequences for those who break them, this means that it is an optional skill.

Leaders need to ensure that in their organisations diversity competence is not optional. (Tweet this)

Insensitivity and attitudinal barriers are often encountered in the workplace by workers with protected characteristics. Diversity intelligence is essential for “majority” group members to see past particular characteristics and recognise the whole person. It is often this lack of skills rather than a lack of awareness that leads to discrimination, fear, bullying, or low expectations of people with protected characteristics.

In a nutshell, we may be aware that our actions are biased, but often we don’t know how to behave more inclusively. (Tweet this)


Diversity Intelligence or DQ comes from the idea that there is much ignorance and very little intelligence of what is diversity.

The law recognises that historically, groups of people have been systematically discriminated against. Specific groups of people with (now) protected characteristics, (e.g. race, disability, sex or sexual orientation), have experienced discrimination. The development of Britain’s anti-discrimination laws took place around the 1970s. They were aiming to tackle unfair discrimination against some groups of people in education, employment and the provision of services.

In the UK context, Diversity competence has built on an understanding of the history and reasoning for the existence of the Equality Act 2010 and other legal provision to protect diverse employees from discriminatory practices in the workplace. This competence requires both cognitive and behavioural actions on the part of the employee and the leader, to be effective.

Diversity Competence is the ability to navigate broad social, cultural, racial, and other human diversities and to comprehend and appropriately use extensive knowledge of Diversity among employees with protected characteristics within the workplace. (Tweet this)

At the basis of Diversity competence, are the knowledge and demonstration of the respect of the Equality law, including the protected characteristics and legal provision in case of discrimination.


Diversity competence is a mixture of Cultural, Emotional and Diversity Intelligence. It is the ability to understand a set of values, behaviours, attitudes and practices within an organisation or system that allows one to work effectively with employees and groups that have a different background.

Diversity in the workplace brings an increase in creativity and problem-solving abilities. But it also can lead to complicated situations and increased risks for conflicts. A Diversity competent worker has the professional, institutional and cultural skills to address and support diversity efforts to the benefit of everyone. (Tweet this)

In the workplace, this competence will help adopt a posture that is non-confrontational, action-oriented, workplace-focused and applicable.

This set of skills is necessary to understand and take into account laws, rules, policies and practices. Crucially, it allows individuals to recognise differences without seeing them as obstacles. Everyone needs to be able to reflect on their actions and behaviours toward all employees; that’s the condition for implementing effective new diversity strategies.

DQ goes beyond the law and means knowing how to behave in the presence of diverse identity categories, including being aware when not to change one’s behaviour at all.

Commonly, leaders think that they know what diversity is and how to implement diversity initiatives. But there can be a gap in what leaders perceive that they know and what they actually are communicating, through their behaviour, to employees.

Organisations are wondering why the change doesn’t last after a diversity training concerning recruitment technics or even unconscious biases.

The truth is that unless DQ is understood and taken seriously by all organisation leaders, it is futile to expect change to occur.

An organisation promoting Diversity Competence at all levels will be identifiable through leadership efforts, including communication style, work processes, training, and career development of employees. (Tweet this)


According to Hughes, integrating diversity intelligence alongside emotional, cultural, and intellectual intelligence in the workplace can reinforce the effectiveness of diversity strategy. Diversity intelligent actions can eliminate ineffective diversity initiatives and improve the effectiveness of diversity efforts.

Promoting diversity competence in your organisation means that you will implement a sustainable and integrated EDI strategy that recognises the value of diversity.  You will be giving your employees and colleagues the tools they need to confidently represent your organisation’s commitment to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.

10 questions to Self-evaluate your Diversity Intelligence and Cultural Awareness:

  1. Do you know what are the protected characteristics and why a person who has a particular protected characteristic is protected?

  1. Do you base your feelings toward protected characteristics group members on opinions and stereotypes or on factual information that you have researched and obtained?

  1. Do you feel that it is the responsibility of the employee with a protected characteristic to prove to you that they should be protected, or do you accept their status without expressing resentment toward them?

  1. Do you have a clear sense of your own ethnic, cultural and racial identity?

  1. Are you aware that to learn more about others you need to understand and be prepared to share your own culture?

  1. Are you aware of your discomfort when your encounter differences in race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, language, and ethnicity?

  1. Are you aware of how your cultural perspective influences your judgement about what are ‘appropriate’, ‘normal’, or ‘superior’ behaviours, values, and communication styles?

  1. Do you accept that in cross-cultural situations, there can be uncertainty and that uncertainty can make you anxious? Does that mean that you do not respond quickly and take the time needed to get more information?

  1. If you are a white person working with a non-white person, do you understand that you may be perceived as a person with power and racial privilege and that you may be seen as ‘biased’ and not as an ally?

  1. Are you aware of the impact of the social context on the lives of a culturally diverse population, and how power, privilege and social oppression influence their lives?

Author: Rachel Gnagniko – Rachel is a Diversity Management Strategy Consultant within the Third Sector.