Diversity & Inclusion Series, Part 2: How to Apply Behavioral Science for Diversity


In our Diversity and Inclusion Series, we embark on a journey to answer the most commonly asked questions related to the topic – everything from how behavioral science consulting works in the context of diversity, to some of our favorite nudges in action. Check out the other parts from the series here.

Q: How does one begin to implement behavioral science for diversity? Diversity is a very broad topic and organizations can be very large, with different players and behaviors. Where does one start?

A: Indeed, diversity and inclusion can be encouraged at all stages of the employee journey, from recruitment to career management, to the day-to-day life at work.

Defining the Primary Objectives

The first thing that we define with our clients is their primary objective, based on their key challenge.

For example, it could be about hiring a diverse workforce, promoting women to senior positions, increasing retention rates of all staff, ensuring equal pay, or better valuing more senior employees. Other times, our clients already know there is a specific process they see as flawed, like annual reviews or talent identification.

And finally, it could be something that is more vague or broad, like creating diversity of thought culture, at which point we then work with the client on what that tangibly means for the organization.

Prioritizing the Objectives

We also help companies and organizations prioritize their diversity and inclusion objectives.

For example, our work with a large bank started with the CEO’s commitment to gender equality, becoming a champion of the HeForShe movement. We worked with the bank on narrowly defining their objectives based on specific challenges. In their case, two objectives were identified in two distinct departments. First, hiring more men in the female-dominated HR department. Second, hiring more women in the CIB division.

When we prioritize, we look at many things. For example, the magnitude of the gap between the current situation and the desired situation, the extent to which other classical approaches (e.g. training, communication, quotas, etc.) have already been explored, the willingness of leaders to powerfully communicate to seed change and the urgency of the change needed (e.g. the presence of harassment, high turnover, stakeholder dissatisfaction, etc.).  We then support the organization in its challenges in priority order.

Q: Ok, so once you have the objective, how do you begin applying your theories or solutions?

A: Our methodology is simple and effective. First, we identify all stakeholders involved. For example, if the objective is to recruit a more diverse workforce, the immediate stakeholders are the recruiting managers, the HR team supporting managers and the candidates (internal and external).

Secondly, we identify all steps of the experience for each stakeholder, because barriers to diversity can be observed at each step.

For example, a candidate who could be competent for the job may decide not to apply due to the framing of the job ad (e.g., vocabulary used, salient points, length of the ad, etc.). Whereas in the case of the HR recruiter, when pre-selecting CVs for a manager, they may anticipate a negative reaction if the presented candidates appear out of scope. Therefore they only present “classical” candidates, leading to a higher representation of the existing majority.

Barriers to diversity can also occur with the hiring manager: by willing his or her team to meet a specific candidate. This can influence the team’s feedback, which can then lead to the team only presenting the hiring manager with the candidate that they wished to hire.

For each step of the experience of each stakeholder, we identify barriers and levers to diversity, from an individual, social and situational perspective. We identify the elements that impact each stakeholder’s decision-making at each step. As we do so, we also identify all the underlying factors influencing the stakeholders: company culture, possible incentives, etc.

When we do this, we use a behaviorally informed approach, based on our expertise in cognitive biases, which generally involves a process review, interviews and observations.

Q: And what is your methodology for coming up with solutions to nudge these different stakeholders?

A. Before answering this question, as mentioned previously, it is important to note that these “direct stakeholders” are impacted by a range of underlying factors – including the actions of their colleagues and senior management. Our approach is comprehensive, and thus based on the results of our observation phase. We are very likely to propose recommendations at multiple levels, based on our expertise in diversity and inclusion, change management and behavioral science.

Specifically, our recommendations are likely to include behaviorally informed elements in the following areas:

  • Information and communication (which can range from a strategic communication plan to an optimized employee scorecard or job ad)
  • Senior management ownership of the objective
  • Small process changes (e.g., people present at interviews, a process to list the key requirements for new job openings, etc.)
  • Tools to use
  • And of course nudges – these small changes in choice architecture will have an impact on people without constraining them (e.g., changing the default setting of a company’s intranet so that all employees are by default marked as mobile – thus leading to more visibility of groups who traditionally declare less mobility, such as women.)

Now to more specifically answer your question about how we come up with these solutions: we use two combined approaches. First, through our expertise in behavioral science applied to diversity. For example, we use our nudge and diversity database and access our understanding of what works and why and in which contexts. Secondly, we co-create solutions with clients.

The results are in the form of recommendations in two complementary directions. First, in “debiasing the processes” to mitigate the impact of identified “universal” biases (e.g., halo effect, status quo bias, etc.) and thus the creation of more fair and equitable processes. Second, in responding to barriers that are specific to some groups (e.g. stereotypes, autostereotypes, etc.) – sometimes by directly targeting these groups.

Q: When you do co-creation sessions, how do you bring in behavioral science so that it’s different than other types of workshops?

A. What we do, aside from bringing in our expertise and proposing solutions based on behavioral science, as previously mentioned, are two things.

First, we present the behavioral barriers to change from our observation phase (e.g., a very uneasy process, some hard-to-forget habits, etc.) and some behavioral levers that we know from experience can create motivation and lead to change. Second, we share with participants the main cognitive biases that can, if properly used, encourage positive change (e.g., ease processes, change the default setting, use the best messengers to share the messages, etc.), and we share with them case studies and examples (as we will share later in our series), allowing for generating ideas that are based on this scientific and experimental knowledge.

In addition, depending on the objective, we also use very specific tools, developed by the BVA Nudge Consulting based on behavioral science. For example, Our Stairs of Change model that encourages us to view the process step-by-step, starting from awareness, to interest, to intention, to action and finally to communication and viral effect. We have used this tool in our HeForShe project for the United Nations, which you can read about in the Behavioral Economic Guide 2019.

Q: And once you have these solutions, how are they activated within the organization?

A: Once recommendations have been proposed, selected, optimized and validated within the organization, three things need to be done: 1.) design the solutions, 2.) test and deploy the solutions, and 3.) engage everyone / communicate around them. We support clients for all these steps, and in concrete terms, this is what they mean:

Design the Solutions

First, designing the solutions. With one industry client, one objective was to encourage more diverse candidates to apply to certain positions, which were viewed as highly technical. Focusing on internal candidates (those already working in the company, who had declared being internally mobile), one of the ideas was that the HR team would directly contact identified potential candidates by sending them a message sharing a job offer with which they thought their profile could be a good match (therefore making the “technical job” offer salient to them, and framing the message to encourage people to try).

Once the decision was made to implement this nudge, the focus then shifted to how to frame the email in terms of sender, subject, content and call to action, in order to maximize the chances that it raised interest and drove a response.

Test and Deploy the Solutions

Second, testing and deploying the solution. With the banking client we referred to earlier, one objective was to encourage the recruitment of more men into the HR department. Specifically, we looked at how to encourage men to apply to HR positions. We uncovered that one of the reasons men did not apply to the client’s HR positions was that they had an overall misperception that the position would have little business impact or low technical involvement. And we observed that indeed, the job ads for these positions did not reflect much of that side of the job.

One solution that was co-created with the client was to have the job ads rewritten by men. In behavioral science, and at the BVA Nudge Consulting in general, we are true believers in test and measure. So in this case, the ideal next step would be to test and compare, before deploying the solution on a larger scale.  

Engage the Organization / Communicate the Solutions

Lastly, engaging everyone / communicating the solution. Let’s look at the example of changing the default setting of a company’s intranet so that all employees are by default marked mobile. This leads to more visibility of groups who traditionally declare less mobility, such as women. When you implement such a change, it is often key to also communicate the rationale for doing it and the freedom that each individual has to choose the best option for them. We support companies in communicating this.

But engagement and communication can also take a broader scope, for example, when solutions decided at the group level need to be deployed in all business units. Here too, we advise on engaging stakeholders and on broad communication.

If you missed them, check out the different parts from our Diversity and Inclusion Series: Why Behavioral Science for Diversity?,  Behavioral Science Outputs for Diversity,  Mind Your Language #WOMEN4STEMReducing the Impact of Stereotypes During Performance ReviewsPromoting Diversity in International Mobility by Reframing a Question and Reducing the Gender Pay Gap by Reducing Ambiguity around Negotiating Salary.

Interested in knowing more about how to encourage gender diversity by design? Get in touch.