Are quotas really the answer for DE&I? 

In the last 20 years, I have had the opportunity to experience first-hand the people agenda in organisations ranging from family-owned businesses to global franchises, and FTSE-listed companies with up to 120,000 employees. 

Naturally, that means I’ve encountered a hugely rich variety of people, and vastly different approaches to helping them all work successfully together. 

Getting DE&I right:

Inclusive recruitment needs continuous improvement

Creating a sense of belonging at work

Poor recruitment costing employers billions

This isn’t to say I have perfected exactly how to approach DE&I, but it’s given me a very good understanding of some of the things I think are less effective. One of them is quotas. 

A seemingly logical answer to a longstanding issue, although unfortunately I don't believe they capture the full challenge and opportunity of this important topic. 

The bigger picture

There are many parts to consider in DE&I, and one reason under-representation is an issue is that traditional recruitment practices can contain bias and be held back by a short-term focus.

While increasing the number of women, people of colour, people with disabilities or under-represented groups within your organisation is a commendable goal, putting an absolute fixed percentage on it will do very little to actually get you there over the long term. There is a need to focus beyond the hiring, with induction and leadership support also being a key part of success. 

Recruiting and managing talent in truly inclusive ways requires a re-think of the search process itself. We need to move past the network approach and start looking beyond the usual places. If you can find a way to put the focus on capability, mindset and divergent thinking, you’ll soon uncover a mine of overlooked talent, and diversity will follow organically.

A crucial component of this is also ensuring you’re using the right language. From your marketing materials to the words you use in the interview process, being conscious of the impact they will have on others is key to attracting diverse talent. It is important to communicate in a way that is understanding of, and inviting to, different cultural contexts.

Making it stick

The second question is around how you get diversity to actually work in practice – and to make it last. The fact is when you bring together a group of individuals with different cultural values, drivers, affinities and experiences, there will naturally be areas of divergent thinking and therefore, on occasion, friction.

This is where organisations and leaders need to flex their adaptability muscle and get comfortable with being uncomfortable, leaning into these moments of tension to seek to understand other perspectives and collaborate for the way forward. 

We all need to take the time to truly understand what makes these diverse people tick and how we can marry their needs with those of the organisation and others around them. The key here is instilling the fluidity, cultural intelligence and openness to keep each individual happy, empowered and thriving in their environment. 

Quotas give a goal to reach in themselves, whereas fostering true inclusion holds the key to making talent stay – and gives them the platform to reach their full potential.

Progress, not performance 

Ultimately, when it comes to building strong, supported, sustainable teams, the story can’t start and end at numbers and targets. It’s time to foster a sense of belonging and shared values. Arming ourselves with real insights on the people we work with, and using that to help them unlock their potential, is the only way we’ll make real progress.


Harriet Hounsell is a non-executive director at Inbeta and chief people officer at Nomad Foods