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EDI Knowledge Mobilization and Dissemination Centre at Sheridan


Applying Behavioural Insights to Cultivate Diversity and Inclusion

Written by Dr. Sonia K. Kang

A central focus for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers has been ensuring that people from diverse backgrounds are well-represented and can live, learn, work, and play together (diversity), access resources and opportunities in ways that are tailored to their unique needs (equity), and feel valued and included for their whole selves (inclusion).

When it comes to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), there has been a lot of emphasis on “fixing” individuals; either the people who hold biases and discriminate against others, or the people who are targeted by bias and discrimination. Long hours and billions of dollars have been invested into teaching people how to recognize and overcome their biases via initiatives such as diversity or unconscious bias trainings. At the same time, significant efforts have been made to teach people from traditionally under-represented groups to rise up, confront, and overcome bias and discrimination themselves. The thinking was that if people could simply work harder and do better, increased DEI would magically follow. Unfortunately, neither of these individually-focused approaches has worked. At best, they have had no effect and, at worst, can backfire and lead to a host of unintended consequences such us less diversity, backlash again minority employees, making members of traditionally dominant groups believe that the problem has been solved and no further work needs to be done, and even legitimizing bias by reinforcing stereotypes.

Instead of focusing on changing individual mindsets and behaviours, organizations should redesign systems and processes that create and perpetuate disparate outcomes and exclusionary cultures in the first place. This “behavioral” or “equality by design” approach concentrates on modifying organizational policies, procedures, and norms to support DEI goals. By applying insights from the behavioural sciences, organizations can combine small changes to yield substantial results and effectively alter behaviours by structuring choices.

To implement effective DEI strategies, companies must examine each stage of the employee pipeline, from attraction and recruitment, to screening and selection, to promotion, advancement and retention, and finally to overall organizational culture. By understanding research in these areas and applying practical solutions, organizations can foster a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace.

  • Attraction and Recruitment. To maximize inclusion and minimize bias, companies should replace gendered language in job descriptions with neutral language and use authentic visual cues that represent diversity. Job descriptions should be specific and skills-based, and diversity statements should showcase an inclusive climate, with testing advised before implementation. These strategies attract diverse applicant pools and foster a more inclusive recruitment process.
  • Screening and Selection. To ensure fair selection, companies can anonymize selection procedures, provided it doesn’t interfere with hiring goals for underrepresented groups. Structured interviews with predetermined scoring systems and evaluation criteria are effective in reducing bias and predicting job performance. Evaluating sets of applications together, rather than individually, enables more objective and less biased assessments. Adopting horizontal joint evaluations prevents spillover and halo effects, and hiring candidates in groups leads to greater gender diversity.
  • Promotion, Advancement, and Retention. To create a more equitable workplace and nurture DEI among existing employees, organizations should consider the following changes: 1) swap out traditional evaluation scales of 10 or 100 with numbers that carry less cultural baggage, 2) replace self-evaluations with behaviorally-anchored peer reviews, 3) implement opt-out promotions, automatically considering everyone past a pre-determined qualification threshold unless they opt out, 4) intentionally encouraging employees from a diverse set of identity groups to apply for opportunities, and 5) make negotiation norms clear by explicitly stating when it is possible and reframing it as “asking” rather than “negotiating”.
  • Organizational Culture. To foster a more inclusive environment, organizations should: 1) communicate and practice a growth mindset at all levels, 2) ensure leaders actively endorse and embody DEI values by creating safe spaces for diverse voices, and 3) instill a culture of accountability and transparency for decisions like hiring and advancement.

The focus of DEI efforts should shift from fixing individuals to fixing the system, and behavioural insights offer concrete, evidence-based solutions that organizations can implement and adapt to their unique settings. Practitioners should experiment, measure, and refine these approaches while partnering with DEI researchers. Nudges are a starting point, but achieving lasting change requires commitment, experimentation, and finding the right combination of tools tailored to each organization.

This article was developed as part of CICan’s 50 – 30 Challenge Ecosystem partnership with ISED. Interested in learning more?  We encourage you to visit our website for resources, personalized one-on-one support and training to support your organization on their EDI journey. Keep up to date by signing up for our mailing list.

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