Climbing the D&I ladder — 5 steps to becoming a better company

In 2020, we saw a spike in activity around Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) and a renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. In June of that year, after the horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Arbery, we saw floods of diversity statements on company websites, black squares appeared all over Instagram and inclusivity organisations were bombarded with requests. It was reassuring to see this level of enthusiasm for something that is one of the most crucial world problems to solve. But many people have since been asking whether all of this excitement has led to any real change?

Sadly, the outlook is pessimistic. Hustle Crew — a company whose mission is to make tech more inclusive — did a poll of nearly 200 people back in October 2020 and asked whether people felt that their workplaces were more inclusive since the resurgence of BLM. The vast majority (60% of respondents) said that things had stayed the same, while a quarter of people said their workplaces had actually gotten worse!

In our experience of instigating change in past organisations, we’ve learnt that one of the most important things to do is to clearly articulate where you’re starting from. We need to engage the people in our teams, understand what good can look like from experts, and identify our gaps. Once we understand where we are today and what good looks like, we can start to plan how we get from A to B.

To help with this, we wanted to find a compelling way to visualise the journey a company might take to improving and expanding their D&I efforts. That’s why we created ‘The D&I Ladder’.

What is The D&I Ladder?

The D&I Ladder is a tool to help companies understand how they stack up within a D&I maturity scale. This is inspired by the Danish Design Ladder, which is used to show how mature an organisation is in terms of design capability. We adapted this model to help our previous employer to understand how they were doing in terms of D&I, and importantly, what they could do to move up the ladder. Naturally, we called it The D&I Ladder.

The D&I Ladder is made up of 5 stages, starting with minimal D&I activity through to D&I being so core to an organisation that it’s infiltrating every part of the business. Let’s go through each of the stages to find out what they mean and see where your company might fit in.

Stage 1: Little to no D&I

In the first stage of The D&I Ladder, diversity and inclusion are invisible parts of the company. No one is responsible for creating and implementing D&I initiatives. Any positive changes that do happen are by chance and the perspectives of underrepresented people play little or no role in them.

We’d like to hope that there’d be few companies that sit on this step of the ladder, especially in this climate, but sadly we think that’s wishful thinking. At this stage, the best thing that you can do is to learn. If you, or your management team, don’t believe that there is a problem then the ladder isn’t going to help you. Research your industry, see what your direct competitors are doing, listen to your teams and, of course, your customers. It’s time to start listening, learning and showing radical empathy for others.

Stage 2: D&I as CSR

In the next stage, diversity and inclusion is viewed exclusively through the lenses of corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, such as volunteering, charitable work and donations. Those who get involved feel motivated and passionate about the activities they do, and they get to walk away with that warm and fuzzy feeling due to the sense of ‘giving back’. However, these activities tend to be ad hoc and infrequent — for example, employees might have one or a handful of days a year for volunteering efforts. CSR also has no direct impact on the wider business, except for maybe a vague statement on their corporate website about how they support local communities. As a whole, D&I is largely seen as an added extra or a nice to have, rather than something that is bringing about real change.

If this sounds like your company, we’d suggest asking questions about why they support CSR initiatives and attempt to explore reasons over and above that it’s the ‘right thing to do’. In your teams, you could start to explore how you could use the skills you’re hired for to do good in the world so that there is a direct link to your business. For example, at The Future Kind Collective, we are committed to making sure that our pro bono work involves using our service design, strategy and innovation skills to support different communities, such as mentoring minority business owners. I currently do this with the incredible Mentor Black Business programme, which provides access to experts across business sectors for black founders and entrepreneurs.

However, before you go ahead and adapt your CSR strategy, we’d want to answer two key questions: first, how can you make the work you do in the community less ad hoc and longer term, and second, how can your business implement a position that protects underrepresented groups inside your company, which leads us onto stage 3.

Stage 3: D&I as policy

By the time we get to stage 3, we see diversity and inclusion featured as part of the company’s policy, expressed in business terms around what the company does and does not tolerate with regards to treatment of their staff. It’s primarily upheld by the HR or people teams, who are responsible for supporting the business when breaches of policy arise. It’s common for these teams to arrange ad hoc, or sometimes recurring, events and training on D&I, which are used to reinforce the policy or to respond to patterns of behaviour that they wish to change.

To be clear, this isn’t a bad stage to be at. In theory, policies are designed to protect individuals from discrimination in all forms. The issue is that the extent to which these policies truly protect people in practice is debatable. Whether policies work or not depends on victims of discrimination raising their concerns, which is easier said than done. There are countless stories of victims reporting their experiences and receiving micro-aggressions or gaslighting in response. This can fuel a culture of silence, rather than one of inclusion and psychological safety.

However, let’s assume that you work for a company that does take its policy seriously, which we hope many of you do. In this case, while it’s great that there is protection against bias and discrimination, we’d point out that a policy-based approach is reactive and passive. It’s designed so that when issues arise, action is taken, whether that’s through a new training course, an update to policy or disciplinary action. Therefore, our question to companies would be how can you take this one step further and become proactive in your approach to D&I? To do this, you’ll need a strategy.

Stage 4: D&I as strategy

At this stage, diversity and inclusion are seen as key strategic drivers that enable the company to reach its goals. The company will most likely have a D&I representative, or even a team, who will work closely with the company’s leaders to rethink key business processes, either completely or in part. The focus here is on D&I in relation to the company’s vision, where the business will focus on taking clear action, often joining external bodies or pledges for accountability and shared learning.

In our opinion, it’s at this stage that you start to see real change. If you view D&I as a core strategic driver, rather than a nice to have, this sends a strong message across your business about what is considered to be important. Having a clear D&I strategy that is visible to your team, let’s your employees know what the direction of the business is. It’s an invitation for them to get involved, or at least it should be positioned as such. Another benefit is that a strategy is a benchmark which you can measure yourself against. You can set yourself, and your teams, objectives that align to your strategy and track progress. After all, what gets measured, gets done.

If you want to shift from policy to strategy, our advice would be to start from within. Conduct an inclusion survey with your team (there are tonnes of templates online to steal) to understand where your gaps are. We did this for our previous employer and it highlighted to us that we needed to focus on recruitment, training and career development. At the same time, you need to dig deep and articulate why becoming a more diverse and inclusive organisation is the right thing to do, and the unique value it’ll bring your company and teams. It’s worth noting at this stage that this last point isn’t a question — the answer is that D&I will always be beneficial to an organisation — but being clear on why your specific company will benefit creates your reason for doing more in this space, and acts as an anchor when things go off course.

Stage 5: D&I embedded

Finally, we have the stage where diversity and inclusion are at the core of an organisation’s structure, their business model and, most importantly, the company culture. It sits horizontally and vertically across the business, with D&I roles on the board and in most teams. At this level, D&I is truly embedded in the culture, all employees understand how it impacts their work and how they can contribute to the whole. D&I is considered at every level and in every decision.

This is really the gold standard in terms of inclusive organisations. This is the type of company that we are aiming to build with The Future Kind Collective. Having a strategy is not enough, we want diversity, equality and inclusion to be considered as standard, in every decision and action that we take. For all ambitious and purpose-driven businesses out there, this should be the ultimate goal.

But, if we are to be completely open with you, we don’t have a list of recommendations for this final stage as we’re still learning ourselves. Therefore, we’d suggest actively engaging with the experts. Speak to the many incredible organisations that are driving change in the D&I space, and make sure that you go for the ones that are founded and led by diverse leaders. Remember, lived experience beats theory.

We’d recommend working with:

From good intentions to action

We hope you found The D&I Ladder as useful as we have in assessing how we stack up. We hope that it gives you some clarity about where and how to focus your efforts.

If you are still unsure about how you can turn your good intentions into action, here are some suggested focus areas which we are working on in The Future Kind Collective.

Building a culture of inclusion.

This involves supporting the existing diversity within your teams. It is a deeply ingrained human need to seek belonging. To fulfil this need, leaders need to ensure that everyone in their teams feels valued for their differences and that they can contribute fully, be heard, seen and respected for their diverse perspectives. Where there are gaps in our understanding of others, it’s important to build awareness and actively seek to educate ourselves collectively through targeted training.

Increasing diversity through recruitment.

This means constructively reviewing and reconsidering recruitment initiatives and implementing new policies to increase the diversity of applicants that are considered for new roles. We’d recommend running a series of workshops to review your recruitment approach, highlighting pain points, needs and opportunities for improvement based on candidate feedback. An important first step is simply increasing the visibility that your roles have by sharing ads in diverse communities such as the job boards at YSYS, Hustle Crew and BYP Network. There are so many communities out there that can help you access a broader range of people — there isn’t an excuse! For more information on inclusive recruitment, we’d recommend checking out Snook’s Inclusive Recruitment study, which is an excellent resource with tangible actions you can take to improve your processes.

Contributing to improving the pipeline of diverse talent.

This involves supporting grassroots organisations and engaging with community action through mentoring and education programmes. We are proud mentors for Mentor Black Business, and we are actively looking for partners to deliver workshops on purpose, culture and building businesses for underrepresented groups. For example, we are partnering with Orbit — a growing community that aims to change the narrative around women and increase representation for all women — to run a series of workshops aimed at turning an business idea into reality.

We hope you’ve found some inspiration in here. Now, let’s take our good intentions and turn them into actions, together.

About the author

Nat is one of two co-founders at The Future Kind Collective which exists to build a world that is kinder, fairer and more creative, where all people have the opportunity to do great things.

Nat is a purpose-driven strategist, empathetic people leader, designer of cultures, services and companies. She is passionate about lifetime learning, compassionate leadership and inclusive cultures.

Nat started her career in digital strategy, where she applied service design to the strategic development of the NatWest mobile banking app. In 2016, she joined SPARCK, a design consultancy, as their third employee, where she was influential in shaping and growing it into a mature organisation.

Throughout her consultancy career, Nat has led projects with varied clients including Insights, Amnesty International, BP, Vocalink (of MasterCard), DVSA, Fidelity, HSBC, ITV and Pizza Hut.

About The Future Kind Collective

The Future Kind Collective is a purpose-driven consultancy which exists to build a world that is kinder, fairer and more creative, where all people have the opportunity to do great things.

We help start-ups and scale-ups to define their purpose, design their culture and grow their impact, while also embedding the skills they need to unlock their power.

We’re here to challenge the existing consultancy model and prove that by putting people and purpose first, you can create businesses that are more profitable, impactful and equitable.

To find out more or to chat over a challenge you’re grappling with, get in touch at

We’d love to hear from you!



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