What does it really mean to be an inclusive employer?

Inclusion is about more than targets and quotas. Software company Salesforce explains how it’s providing equal access to opportunity while also diversifying its employee base


Inclusive employer

Diversity isn’t new. After all, making progress on organisational diversity has been on the business agenda for decades. However, a diverse organisation that fails to tackle systemic challenges around access to opportunities, unconscious bias or culture will still struggle to succeed. 

This is why the idea of inclusion is so important. If diversity is the “who” and “what” of your organisation - who are your board members, what is the breakdown of ethnicities, gender or socio-economic background in your organisation - then inclusion is the “how” - how you allow these individuals to thrive, express themselves and create innovation in your company. Without inclusion, the impact of diversity is weakened. 

A 2020 McKinsey study called Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters examined the business case for diversity across more than 1,000 companies. Unsurprisingly, it found that organisations that were gender and ethnically diverse financially outperformed those that were not. In fact, the more diverse the company, the better its performance. 

Diversity doesn’t lead to inclusion

However, the paper also examined employee sentiment at these organisations on issues relating to diversity and inclusion, by evaluating their online employee reviews. It found a marked difference between how employees viewed the two issues, with overall sentiment on diversity 52% positive and 31% negative, and sentiment on inclusion only 29% positive and 61% negative. This shows the challenges even diverse companies have in tackling issues around inclusion, with the paper concluding that “hiring diverse talent isn’t enough - it’s the workplace experience that shapes whether people remain and thrive”. 

Kirstin Steinmetz, director, workforce development EMEA at Salesforce, agrees that inclusion is about equity of opportunity and experience.

“For Salesforce, inclusion is about making sure our doors are open to everyone and that everybody has access to jobs and necessary skills. We recognise that talent is everywhere, but opportunity isn’t,” she says. 

As someone who works in technology, Steinmetz is aware of the lack of diversity in the sector. She believes that Covid-19 has accelerated digital skills gaps and that young people and education providers find the industry difficult to approach. 

A 2021 survey by the Sutton Trust looked at the socio-economic background of 3,400 employees in the sector. It found that 87% had completed a degree and two-thirds came from managerial backgrounds. One of its key findings was that widespread misconceptions about the breadth of roles in the sector (most people believe technology jobs require hard technical skills) were discouraging people from applying for jobs. 

Providing opportunities to all

Steinmetz agrees that the lack of uptake in STEM subjects in education is affecting diversity in technology and that young people are unaware of the scope of roles available. Consequently, technology businesses like Salesforce are rethinking how they hire, develop and upskill their talent. 

One way Salesforce is diversifying its talent pool is through junior hires without a university education, focusing on those from underrepresented backgrounds. Having run internships for untapped talent in the US for a decade, it launched its UK apprenticeship programme in 2018, with Steinmetz seeing a significant increase in numbers during 2020/21.

“We offer apprenticeships to young people and adults without a university background because we think they bring in innovation and a different perspective that is valuable. Inclusive hiring is about hiring for competencies and potential rather than certificates and degrees,” says Steinmetz.

“It’s also important to make sure that when people join, they have access to the necessary training and upskilling to do their jobs well. They also need to feel represented, so that they can communicate openly,” she adds.

To achieve this, apprentices are put on a two-week intensive onboarding programme. The experience provides apprentices with information on Salesforce’s values, communication skills, mentoring and cohort support. Crucially, Salesforce also provides managers with support and advice on how to work with apprentices, so that both new and existing employees feel supported. 

Sharing experiences

Part of creating an inclusive culture is providing a space for employees to share experiences and have difficult conversations. Salesforce has 12 employee resource groups largely based on demographics, which Steinmetz says have three purposes - raising awareness of internal issues, providing support to employees and offering outreach programmes to potential talent. This in turn comes down to Salesforce’s organisational values - trust, customer success, innovation and equality.

“We’re committed to a trusting relationship with our stakeholders. We want to create open communication through both our employee resource groups and our feedback culture. It’s about creating a safe space for trusted conversations,” says Steinmetz.

Ultimately, inclusivity is about accepting that each individual is different, but that their experiences and opinions are equally valid. Everybody learns and develops at their own pace. Organisations need to accept and celebrate this if they truly want to create an inclusive culture. 

“Everybody’s circumstances are different and it is important to understand that. That moves you from inclusion to equality,” says Steinmetz. 

“Everybody has a different recipe for success, but success is possible for everybody. The route might change, but it’s always there,” she adds. 

It is essential to open up opportunities to those who previously have not been able to access roles in your organisation or sector. Doing so adds innovation, ideas and new perspectives - all vital for succeeding in the future of work.

Empowering the hidden middle

Although many employers focus on providing digital training to those excluded from technology, it’s important to remember that a large percentage of our workforce lack basic digital skills. A recent study by digital skills coalition FutureDotNow found that an estimated 17.1 million people (52% of the UK’s workforce) lack essential digital skills for work and life, such as joining virtual meetings, booking annual leave online or monitoring digital pay slips. 

Empowering this “hidden middle” - those left between digital exclusion and advanced digital skills - is vital for businesses looking to recover from the pandemic, particularly as organisations progress through digital transformation programmes.

So what steps can businesses take? FutureDotNow is working towards a target of 75% of adults receiving digital skills training from employers by 2024. It recommends a three-step programme to kickstart digital skills training, using a senior sponsor as a touchpoint.

Firstly, businesses should identify and assess the state of digital skills within their organisation, identifying areas they need to develop. Secondly, build a business case for training programmes, showing the material impact on productivity and workforce culture. Finally, create a learning programme, taking care to embed it in the day-to-day processes of employees. 

To find out how Salesforce is powering the workforce of tomorrow, visit trailhead.salesforce.com.