What happens to Black inclusion when DEI becomes ESG?

Last week, Audeliss and INvolve had their first If Not Now, When? HR Roundtable of 2023. These roundtable sessions aim to create a productive and honest space for DEI leaders from this campaign’s signatory organizations and provide a necessary platform for discourse and the sharing of best practice when it comes to inclusion for Black employees in the UK.

This roundtable focused on whether organizations may risk diluting efforts for DEI as this function increasingly becomes embedded within wider ESG practices, or whether it bolsters and formalizes efforts for change. We discussed whether there’s a tangible risk of losing focus around the specifics of Black inclusion and potentially homogenizing employees’ diverse experiences and whether granularity is required for purposeful change.

As we move into a new year against a political and economic climate of uncertainty, these roundtables are aimed at providing HR and DEI Leaders with practical tools and knowledge to maintain the momentum for change. Our key objective is to facilitate relevant discussions that support our signatory organizations and key decision-makers to continue driving meaningful, long-term change.

Key learnings

It was immediately apparent that everyone in the group understands the importance of maintaining momentum and a focus on Black inclusion. There was a broad agreement that ESG does not replace or sanitize efforts for DEI and Black inclusion specifically, rather it provides a governance system and structure to foster change. The group broadly agreed that attaining inclusion for Black employees was also nuanced, and factors such as region and population, differing representation levels across the businesses and the importance of intersectionality were also major factors in deciding what initiatives and programs were implemented.

ESG’s role as a system of governance

The discussion began with a breakdown of the function of ESG within a business. There was broad agreement that ESG provides a strong framework and formalizes the importance of DEI within a business, and that this only seeks to enhance and improve efforts for inclusion, both for Black employees and in a broader sense, across organizations.

The group did state that the success of DEI as a pillar within ESG is dependent on the way an organization positions ESG within a business. Where it is established as a strong solution for enhancing overall governance, the focus is not lost. Where both are combined, any issues surrounding the dilution and lack of success in relation to DEI is likely as a result of strategies and initiatives that aren’t yet mature or strong in their ambitions for change.

The group broadly agreed that as DEI plays a pivotal role in the overall success of ESG, ensuring DEI success is that much more integral to organizations from a business standpoint, thus it hasn’t caused a shift or dilution in focus.

Some stated that it’s not ESG that may potentially shift the focus away from Black inclusion, but rather work around social mobility. As social mobility is still in need of defining, it’s here that inclusion for specific strands could get lost.

Data’s role in DEI

The group agreed that data’s role in DEI was key to both success and accountability. Some stated that employees are becoming more receptive to providing data, as the clear use of this data and its effects on broader inclusion initiatives are being communicated and are visible to them. Aims for inclusion at some organizations are also backed by ethnicity pay gap (EPG) reporting, despite the lack of a government mandate, and while EPG reporting may still not be robust, those who are reporting are seeing an appetite for change emerging.

Some in the group stated, to agreement, that if organizations aren’t already reporting on their levels of Black representation, then inclusion initiatives are behind the curve and that Black inclusion is likely being lost. It’s vital that strategies and initiatives that are implemented are anchored within data too, and that this needs to be shared both internally and externally to enhance accountability and keep Black inclusion as a focus within businesses.

Maintaining focus on Black inclusion

The group was asked whether they had felt a loss of focus on Black inclusion within the last 12-18 months, due to a focus on ethnicity as a whole.

The group largely stated that they had not lost focus, and that it is an organization’s responsibility to ensure that inclusion for specific groups remained a priority. Also stated was the importance of gathering a holistic picture of the state of play across the organization that factored in the following – the levels of representation across a business, talent pipelining and the success of programs in relation to Black inclusion specifically.

Some within the group also voiced some of the key challenges in focusing on a particular inclusion strand, stating that there will always be employees who feel left out or side-lined from inclusion due to a particular and concerted focus in some areas. The challenge is ensuring that Black inclusion is a focus when the conversation is specific to Black employees to keep progress from diluting, while still paying attention to inclusion as a whole. In addition, strategies must be underpinned by the support of senior leaders, stakeholders, and networks to ensure longevity.

However, others discussed that it is possible to drive inclusion for Black employees while also creating change for others without losing focus, and that this lies in short-term changes vs. an emphasis on long-term cultural transformation. Examples such as investing in university visits, networking events, and ensuring senior leadership teams have DEI as a responsibility within their remit are some ways that every group can be afforded the opportunity, not just to enter an industry or company, but to succeed within a role too. For inclusion to work, some in the group stated that it was important to go beyond diverse slates and opt for longer term action which may yield slower results but will allow for sustainable and systemic change.

Positive action

Some in the group discussed the potential benefits of positive action and where they had seen this succeed. The example of public vs private sector DEI strategies was discussed, and it was suggested that positive action has allowed for some departments within public sector organizations to really flourish and nurture their diverse talent through embedding ambitious targets for representation across senior business levels.

The group was split on whether targets and positive action were the way forward, particularly the perception of targets among both diverse talent and their white counterparts. Most agreed that the key to targets was in the communication and ensuring that employees were aware that this practice was not tokenistic and providing clear reasons for setting targets to improve diversity throughout the organization.

A few in the group also discussed the link between commercials and inclusion, with some stating that they are often asked questions by stakeholders and prospective clients on how representative their staff is in relation to population. This seems to be a determining factor for customers, stakeholders and clients and therefore positive action and targets may be necessary for some organizations from a business standpoint. This was also enhanced by the broader sentiment that inclusion is good for business and that losing focus on Black inclusion specifically but also DEI more generally, is only detrimental in the long-term for businesses.


Gather your baseline data

Start by collecting qualitative and quantitative data to measure the current state of DEI and ESG at your organization. It will be these baseline metrics that will help you see your organization objectively. Look at the demographic data that you collect and ensure that you ask questions that focuses on employee belonging and inclusion. If you need assistance on what questions can be asked regarding demographics or the types of questions that can pinpoint how your employees are feeling regarding DEI, feel free to ask INvolve for information on RADAR and how that can help gauge where you currently stand as an organisation.

Monitor your internal resources

Change will not happen if you do not have the correct amount of resource allocated. This includes time, people, and budget. Be very clear at what you want to achieve and what is required to achieve it.

Report out

Communicate your progress, successes, failures, milestones etc with your entire organization throughout the year.

Remember, building a vibrant workplace culture is a continuous journey, not a destination. Inclusion is a muscle that needs to be used daily – you to stay present and engaged.


If Not Now, When? is one of the largest CEO-driven commitments to taking key long-term sustainable actions on Black inclusion in UK businesses. Audeliss and INvolve have created a unique community of more than 80 CEOs stepping up to the call to action to drive a culture that is fully representative and inclusive of Black individuals.

If you like to become a part in changing business for Black employees, sign up to be a signatory here.