Inclusive Growth Show

When Words Are Not Enough

January 24, 2023 Toby Mildon Episode 91
Inclusive Growth Show
When Words Are Not Enough
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode I talked to Dr Tara Van Bommel about her research and a recent report she has co-authored full of data-led policy insights to support diversity and inclusion professionals in their organisations.

You can boost company productivity, avoid PR disasters, and build a thriving workplace that attracts the best talent by watching our webinar!

S?: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hey there, thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of the Inclusive Growth podcast. I'm Toby Mildon, and today I'm joined by a fantastic guest, her name is Dr. Tara Van Bommel and I came across Tara when she co-authored a really fascinating and helpful report called Words Aren't Enough: The Risks of Performative Policies, and Tara works for an organisation called Catalyst. And I just though this report was fantastic. Really helpful as a diversity and inclusion practitioner, and some of the things that you should be thinking about if you are running diversity and inclusion programs within your organisation. So I was really keen to get Tara onto this podcast to quiz her a bit more about what went into the report and what they found. So Tara, thanks ever so much for joining me today. It's lovely to see you.

Tara Van Bommel: Thanks Toby. Thanks for having me on the show. It's great to be here with you.

Toby Mildon: So before we get into the report, would you mind just introducing yourself a bit more, in your own words, a bit about your professional and personal backgrounds.

Tara Van Bommel: Sure, absolutely. So as you mentioned, my name is Dr. Tara Van Bommel, and I'm a Statistician and Senior Director of Research at Catalyst, and I lead our research initiatives on women and the future of work. And more broadly, I'm a social psychologist by training with a specialisation in stereotyping and prejudice, and really more broadly, my passion is social justice. So at Catalyst, I'm able to bring both my training as a scientist and my passion for equity to effect real change by creating cutting edge research that helps leading companies and CEOs around the world create more equitable inclusive workplaces for women and for everyone.

Toby Mildon: That's really great. So as I said, you write this report, Words Aren't Enough: The Risks of Performative Policies, why did you write that report with your colleagues? 

Tara Van Bommel: Yeah. And I wanna give also a shout out to my colleagues as well, as you mentioned, this was a co-authored report with Dr. Kathrina Robotham and Dr. Danielle Jackson. And so really the roots of this report began a few years ago, and when we really started crafting the survey from which these data are drawn, and this really began in the spring and summer of 2020, and so sort of setting the backdrop. As we all know, the pandemic was sweeping across the globe, companies were sending people home to work or trying to figure out how to keep their front line employees safe while they performed essential work to keep our economies afloat. And then here in the United States, George Floyd was murdered by police, and that sparked a global outcry for racial justice. And some would say it's brought a racial reckoning. And actually, I don't think we have a reckoning yet, but the renewed calls for justice and equity were heard by company leaders in a way that we really hadn't seen before. And companies made bold, albeit necessary and long overdue, bold pledges to double down on racial equity and DEI more broadly. Some took bold action, but many more simply made bold statements. So this was the backdrop of what was happening in the world.

Tara Van Bommel: Furthermore, we believe that this moment in time reflected a critical period for organisations and their leaders and that employees, customers and other stakeholders were carefully watching how companies were responding to these events. And part of our hypothesis was that people would take their money and their talent to companies that responded by doubling down on DEI work, by expanding remote and flexible work and ultimately responding with fair and concern for their employees. So in other words, by using this disruption we were experiencing to build more inclusive, empathic and equitable work places. So we wanted to test these ideas and really understand what companies were doing in response. Were are they implementing policies to support their employees during COVID and were they implementing policies to improve racial equity, and even more importantly, did these actions seem genuine to employees and what were the benefits of genuine responses to these crises, and conversely, what were the risks of performative policies? 

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. And what you've described there really marries up with what I found with our own clients. There was definitely a focus on equity and inclusion because of what we were seeing in the pandemic and some of the impact that that had on members of our society, and also particularly, after the murder of George Floyd in the US as well. A lot of our clients were talking about how they respond to that, how they support their staff and how they become anti-racist organisations, so everything that you've outlined there rings really true for us and the organisations that we work with. What were some of the key findings that you found having authored the report? 

Tara Van Bommel: Yeah, so we surveyed nearly 7,000 employees from 14 countries around the globe, and on the whole, we found that most employees did not view their company's policies as genuine. In fact, only 32% perceive their company's COVID policies as genuine, and even less, only 25% view their company's racial equity policies as genuine. And our data showed that this was consequential because when employees did perceive their organisation's COVID policies and racial equity policies as genuine, they had better employee experiences. So specifically, we found that employees who perceive their organisation's COVID-19 policies and racial equity policies as genuine experience more inclusion, they experienced more engagement at work, they reported greater feelings of respect and value for their unique life circumstances, they reported a greater ability to balance life and work demands and they reported greater intend to stay with their organisation.

Toby Mildon: Yes, I'm really... Quite striking numbers there, and it really does explain why it's worth investing in diversity and inclusion improvements within the organisation, and this might be a bit of a daft question, but what are the risks associated with having performative policies? 

Tara Van Bommel: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's important. So we found really essentially, that employees do view their company's policies as genuine, in other words, when they see that... When they don't see them as genuine rather, or when they see them as performative, we see the converse of what I've just described, that they're less able to balance life and work demands, they're saying they don't feel respected by their company, they're not engaged in their work and ultimately they're not having an inclusive workplace experience. And altogether this leads them to be more likely to think about leaving their job. And so altogether, all of these factors combine to create a serious risk for negative employee experiences and ultimately, impact organisational success.

Toby Mildon: So one of the great things about your report is that you obviously spoke to lots of employees, so got lots of data. How did those employees view the COVID-19 policies, and what were some examples of performative COVID policies that you spotted?

Tara Van Bommel: Yeah, so as we mentioned before, quite a few employees told us that they didn't think that the policies were genuine, and thankfully, we had some open-ended data from our respondents, we were able to ask them a little bit more about what looked good in the organisation in terms of their response and what were some examples of things that were more performative. And as it relates to COVID-19 policies, some examples that we see of un-genuine COVID-19 policies include things like allowing remote work but not providing flexibility for employees who must manage caretaking and schooling from home as well. For front line businesses, putting COVID precautions in place for workers but not enforcing social distancing or providing personal protective equipment or conducting things like temperature checks and implementing a self-care wellness program, for example, to mitigate burnout. But without actually doing anything to address unmanageable workloads and always on culture were a couple of the things that really came out time and again with the COVID responses.

Toby Mildon: And what did you find when it came to racial policies and maybe some disingenuous racial equity policies that you came across in your research.

Tara Van Bommel: Yeah, so some of the examples of disingenuous racial equity policies included pledging funds to support racial equity but they're not actually following through and sending those funds. Something we saw pretty immediately after George Floyd's murder was organisations putting out black squares on Instagram and tagging Black Lives Matter but then making no meaningful changes or commitments in workplace equity and inclusion. So saw companies hiring a chief diversity officer or a DEI expert but then giving them no real power or resources in the organisation, not implementing the changes they recommended or not addressing the problems they identified. Lastly, making one-time anti-racism or bias training mandatory for all employees but they're not taking claims of bias seriously or thinking about how the organisation can be anti-racist in daily interactions with employees and customers. I think across the COVID-19 policies and the racial equity policies, these examples, what really stands out to me and the names for the report is really words without actions or doing something once and not really following through to make that commitment felt throughout the organisation and for individual employees in their daily lives.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, what you're saying, it sounds so familiar. I spoke to colleagues or employees within some of our organisations that we work with who were saying that they felt initially the chief exec or the senior leadership team were making positive statements about anti-racism, but then they felt like that senior leadership team was leaning too much on staff from an ethnic minority background and then it felt like it was the responsibility of those employees to kinda fix the issues rather than the chief exec and the senior leadership team being accountable and taking responsibility for addressing anti-racism within the organisation. And it's not just around race. We saw it recently, didn't we? With the World Cup over in Qatar and brands who, on one hand, they say that they're LGBT inclusive and they changed their logo to be rainbow colours, but then they were publicly endorsing the World Cup football, which was not very LGBT inclusive over in Qatar.

Tara Van Bommel: Yeah, absolutely. There's... We focus in on these two events here, but it really applies to so many social justice issues and crises of our time.


S?: If your company has a great diversity and inclusion strategy, if your organisation has an amazing work culture where productivity is peaking, if the best talents in your industry are working for you, if all your employees are happy and feel included, then feel free to skip this message for about 30 seconds and continue listening to the podcast interview with Toby. But if you feel that your company is lacking in any one of these areas, your employee reputation is taking a hit. Toby Mildon is one of the UK's leading diversity and inclusion experts, who has helped top companies like Deloitte, the BBC, Sony Pictures and Centrica, as well as numerous scale up businesses who want an outstanding inclusive culture. To go further in your diversity and inclusion journey, log on to Toby's webinar at to accelerate your company's diversity and inclusion strategy in 40 minutes. Thanks for listening. And now back to the podcast interview with Toby.


Toby Mildon: What are some of the key lessons that we've learned over the last few years when it comes to racial equality, particularly following George Floyd's murder and what we've been through in the pandemic? 

Tara Van Bommel: Yeah, so I think one of the big lessons learned is that employees and customers too are looking to leaders and to organisations to respond in meaningful and impactful ways during times of crisis and a [0:13:58.0] ____ people. And when companies do so, it benefits both employees and the companies they work for. And on a collective macro level, it benefits society. However, we've also seen that we still have a lot of work to do to achieve equity in the workplace and in society more broadly. And in our data, we saw that although genuine policies are associated with it almost two-fold increase in the experience of inclusion, the initial numbers were so low that even with genuine policies, still less than half of employees experience inclusion at work.

Tara Van Bommel: And I think George Floyd's murder has had the effect of bringing these long-standing and pervasive issues of injustice and oppression back into the global spotlight, as did the pandemic, but it also exacerbated existing inequalities. Especially for the most marginalised in our society. But I think the silver lining in moments of disruption like we're currently experiencing is that they provide the greatest opportunity for change and progress. Thus, although there's so much work to be done, there's also an unprecedented opportunity to leverage this disruption to rebuild and redefine the future of work, and I think by leading with empathy and implementing policies that create real change, we can create an equitable workplace of the future, one where everyone can belong, contribute and thrive. And I think that that's one of the biggest important takeaways we can take from so much crisis in our people we've experienced over the past few years, that there is a great opportunity here.

Toby Mildon: And I find it really interesting in your report that you identified empathy as one of the key themes or recommendations around inclusive leadership. So why did you identify empathy and what is the role of empathy for leaders? 

Tara Van Bommel: Yeah. So for us more broadly, in our line of future work research, we really see empathy as a critical leadership skill and really a business imperative in the times that we're in right now. And so it was really important for us to take that into consideration, especially as we thought about how empathy would be important to responding to these events. And so what we did was when we looked at the role of senior leader empathy, and we looked at it in combination with genuine policies. And so for example, with genuine COVID policies, we found that the presence of the genuine policies and senior leader empathy was key to decreasing burnout, which refers to the feelings of overwhelming emotional exhaustion, cynicism and a diminished sense of efficacy at work.

Tara Van Bommel: So specifically, when employees perceive their organisation's COVID policies as genuine and they had empathic senior leaders, they were less likely to have high levels of general workplace burnout, and less likely to have high levels of COVID-19-related workplace burnout compared to employees with senior leaders who had low empathy and un-genuine COVID-related policies. So these data here are telling us that when there's this individual empathy from leaders and then organisational empathy in the form of policies that demonstrate care and concern for employees, that they were better able to handle chronic stress. And we think as finding is especially important for women, who have on average, experienced greater levels of burnout during the pandemic than their male counterparts. And in regards to the racial equity policies, again, we found that senior leader empathy was critical to crafting genuine responses.

Tara Van Bommel: So specifically, we found that empathic senior leaders were more likely to create genuine racial equity policies, and this in turn led to greater experiences of inclusion among people of colour. Thus, this data pinpoints senior leader empathy as really one key driver of genuine policies. And then lastly, one last finding that I'll highlight is that interestingly, we also found that the benefits of racial equity policies extended beyond the target group of people of colour to women across race and ethnicity. So specifically, empathic senior leaders were more likely to create these genuine racial equity policies and this in turn led to greater work engagement among women and it also led to greater feelings of being respected and valued by their company for their unique life circumstances. And this actually aligns with previous research showing that this transfer of benefits may occur because establishing policies that benefit one marginalised group signals to other marginalised groups that the organisation promotes equity more broadly. So more evidence to what we're talking about earlier about how these genuine responses and having empathy and really doubling down diversity equity inclusion has so many benefits for organisations and for employees, broadly.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. I think, so in the report, you also make the statement that this should be a wake-up call for chief executives. Why do you and your colleagues put it like that? 

Tara Van Bommel: Yeah, that's a great question. We really believe this is a wake up call for CEOs because we're in an era of high-end disruption and really a paradigm shift in the world of work. And there's a new social contract of work being constructed. And a key part of that, both broadly and especially as it relates to responses to crisis and disruption, is the shifting expectations for ethical leadership and CEO activism. And employees and customers are looking to leaders to take a stand and make a difference on the defining social issues of our time. And really our data show that those that cannot do so genuinely risk perhaps becoming obsolete as employees will take their talent elsewhere.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, again, that rings so true with the clients that I work with and what new talent coming into the marketplace is looking for at the organisations that they work for. How are employees differentiating between those genuine and performative policies when they are looking at their current employer or maybe looking at a new place to work?

Tara Van Bommel: So as I mentioned earlier, in our survey, we did collect some qualitative responses in which we asked employees to describe what aspects of their company's racial equity initiatives were most or least meaningful to them. And when we look at employees who say that their company's racial equity policies are not genuine, one of the biggest themes we see across responses is there's words without actions. So some examples include announcing a policy with no follow-through or sending you email expressing concern without taking any follow-up action or announcing trainings or a new policy but failing to implement. And then conversely, among employees that did find their company's responses to be genuine, they named consistency, such as taking a stand internally and externally, being transparent and admitting that the company is not as diverse or inclusive as it should be, taking corrective action such as empower ERGs or removing bias from hiring practices and diversifying leadership.

Tara Van Bommel: So I think importantly, we see that employees aren't seeking perfection or a quick fix from leaders, they understand that DEI work is complex and ongoing and they also understand that systemic issues like racial and gender bias require systemic solutions. So transparency, communication and implementing policies and other changes that impact the workplace climate are important qualities of genuine policies.

Toby Mildon: So we get a lot of heads of HR and senior business leaders listening to this podcast. What would your number one recommendation be to the person listening to us today of an action that they can take away and start to implement within their own business? 

Tara Van Bommel: Well, I think I have a couple. One of the big take-aways really from our report was that senior leaders who leverage their empathy skills created genuine responses to crises. So in order for organisations to respond genuinely, they need to invest in building the empathy skills of their senior leaders with empathy training. Empathy is a skill that has cognitive, emotional and behavioural components. And many people mistakenly understand empathy as a purely emotional phenomenon and that's inaccurate. Thus it's really critical for leaders to leverage cognitive empathy skills, to listen and learn what employees need to thrive and then take those learnings and act on them as a demonstration of behavioural empathy.

Tara Van Bommel: The second thing I would recommend is to really embrace ethical decision-making. As I mentioned, the shifting expectations for ethical leadership and CEO activism mean that it's important to commit to social issues, because it's the right thing to do. And this means focusing on ethical and fairness-based arguments for supporting these social issues. And prior research shows that making the business case for diversity and inclusion can actually come off insincere because your support for these issues is dependent upon their profitability, which further implies that if it's not profitable, a climate of bias and discrimination is perhaps financially better for the organisation. So leadership provide fairness-based rationales for policies and research shows that organisations that support social policies for ethical reasons are perceived as more sincere, honest and trustworthy than those who do so for economic reasons.

Tara Van Bommel: I think the thing I would remind and encourage our practitioners and leaders out there is is to think about constantly evolving their equity initiatives. What this means is that equity is not a one-and-done endeavour, it's not just a check box, we did it. It's important to regularly audit and re-assess the success of DEI programs and use the data and employee feedback to pivot and re-adjust as needed. And also, I think because we're in a time of rapid change and disruption, issues of equity will be emergent and evolving, thus it's important to be adaptable and to allocate sufficient resources and support to these endeavours to really ensure their success over on the long term.

Toby Mildon: That sounds brilliant. I'm really pleased that you've highlighted those three things because when we work with clients on developing inclusive leadership skills, empathy is one of the areas or the leadership traits that we get our clients to look at, which I'm really pleased to hear about. Secondly, a lot of our clients are saying that investing in diversity and inclusion and equity is simply the right thing to do. And I like it when clients say that because a lot of clients talk to us about the "business case for diversity and inclusion". And whilst we do a lot of work to try and help identify or help our clients identify that kind of core reasons why diversity and inclusion helps their business grow, so that could be just better anticipating client needs, reflecting the diverse communities that they already work with, reducing employee attrition and that kind of thing. As for the item that we do like to see is, "Well, this is just the right thing to do." There's kind of like an ethical and moral case to it as well.

Toby Mildon: And then the last point about making this sustainable, that it's not a one-and-done thing is magic to my ears because we work with our clients to make sure that they embed diversity and inclusion into the DNA of their organisation, that this isn't just a box ticking exercise or something to raise your profile and a window dressing exercise, it's pit in that it will make your organisation a much better place to work.

Tara Van Bommel: Absolutely.

Toby Mildon: The penultimate question that I asked everybody is, what does inclusive growth mean to you? 

Tara Van Bommel: Yeah, that's a great question. I think to me inclusive growth means bring a curiosity and a humility-based mindset to being an advocate for equity and inclusion. I think it's so important acknowledging that there's always more to learn, more ways to grow and it's really through this openness to growth and change in our understanding of what equity and inclusion works and looks like, that we're able to affect real change. Kind of the opposite of a zero sum mindset, it's not that bringing more people to the table means everyone's slice of pie gets smaller, it's actually that the pie gets bigger. So that's I think a little bit of what I think of when I think of what inclusive growth means to me.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. So we've been talking about the report, Words Aren't Enough: The Risks of Performative Policies, if the person listening to us right now wants to get their hands on a copy and read it for themselves, where should they go? 

Tara Van Bommel: Yes, so please feel free to go to and download a copy of the report for yourself and I also want to let our listeners know that we've also just released a new Future of Work report about a month ago now, in the beginning of December, on the skill of adaptability, this report is entitled Adapt or Fail: How Managers Can Enable Everyone to Thrive and we really see that adaptabilities of critical Future of Work skill and we show that it helps advance gender and racial equity, so there are relevant findings and actions that relate to our conversation today. And although in our report, our data focus on managers' adaptability skills, the skill of adaptability is important for anyone working on a team. So also lastly, feel free to reach out and connect on LinkedIn, you'll find me under Tara Van Bommel. Feel free to reach out, too, if you have any questions about the research.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Thank you, Tara. I'm definitely gonna go and get a copy of your other report and I think we should invite you back on the podcast and talk about the second report that you've authored as well, so... Yeah, if that's okay with you, we'll get you back.

Tara Van Bommel: We'd love to join you again. It's been a pleasure, Toby, thanks for having me on the show today.

Toby Mildon: You're very welcome and thanks ever so much for joining me. It's been a really fascinating conversation and I think you've given some really practical insights and actions that the person listening to us right now can take away and apply within their own organisation.

Tara Van Bommel: Fantastic.

Toby Mildon: And thank you for tuning into this episode of the Inclusive Growth podcast with Tara and myself today. Hopefully you found it a really insightful and interesting discussion and you've taken away some practical titbits that you can apply in your own business to create a more fair and equitable, diverse and inclusive work environment for the people that work for you. Look out for upcoming episodes of this podcast. We release episodes really frequently. We cover loads of different topics, so there's something for everyone so until then, take good care of yourself.


S?: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at