How new organizational models are the key for inclusion in work environments

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e aggiornato il 13 Dicembre 2023


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I’ve been invited by the Career Service of The University of Padua to speak at an event organized by Arqus European University Alliance. This is the living document I wrote for the event. It is a living document, firstly because of my bad English (I will do a lot of editing in the next few days, I think) and secondly because I hope that this paper will be used as a starting point for a discussion on these topics.

The “Orange” paradigm

In its Human Resources Glossary1, Gartner defines Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) as an autonomous function within an organisation or a sub-function of Human Resources whose purpose is to ensure that the organisation is made up of diverse individuals (on the basis of individual characteristics, values, beliefs and backgrounds). This function promotes a work environment in which all employees feel a sense of respect, acceptance, support and appreciation. This is a good thing. However, this new corporate function is consistent with the traditional top-down approach that generates most of today’s working environment pathologies.

For highly hierarchical organisations, creating an inclusion infrastructure is the standard way of dealing with diversity. But in my view, trying to solve a cultural problem by appointing another manager is like «doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results»2

Frédéric Laloux defines the evolutionary level of most contemporary organisations as the “Orange” paradigm in his remarkable book “Reinventing Organisations” 3:

Orange thinking sees organizations as machines. The engineering jargon we use to talk about organizations reveals how deeply we hold this metaphor. We talk about units and layers, inputs and outputs, efficiency and effectiveness, pulling the lever and moving the needle, accelerating and hitting the brakes, scoping problems and scaling solutions, information flows and bottlenecks, re-engineering and downsizing.

Leaders and consultants design organizations. Humans are resources that must be carefully aligned on the chart, rather like cogs in a machine. Changes must be planned and mapped out in blueprints, then carefully implemented according to plan. If some of the machinery functions below the expected rhythm, it’s probably time for a “soft” intervention―the occasional team-building―like injecting oil to grease the wheels.

The machine metaphor also reveals the dynamic nature of organizations in Orange (as compared to Amber, where we think of organizations as rigid, unchanging sets of rules and hierarchies). There is room for energy, creativity, and innovation. At the same time, the metaphor of the machine indicates that these organizations, however much they brim with activity, can still feel lifeless and soulless.

Reinventing Organization Wiki, Orange Paradigm and Organizations, 2021

This paradigm is best exemplified by large multinational corporations. But in businesses of all sizes, and even in most political, artistic and cultural systems, the same materialistic and consumerist view is the norm. Profit is the only purpose for both companies and people in the Orange paradigm.

Diversity washing

Social responsibility is all the rage these days. A growing number of companies differentiate themselves by claiming to be purpose-driven. But are they sincere? When someone who would sell his mother to get a new contract suddenly becomes a champion of social responsibility, the signs of quackery are significant. Greenwashing tactics are so widespread that it is difficult to trust corporate storytelling these days. The average narrative is full of buzzwords like ‘inclusion’, ‘innovation’ and the ever-present ‘sustainability’. Everyone’s talking nonsense, and it’s hard to tell the liars from the honest advocates.

In this kind of inauthentic arena, the risk of diversity washing is high. Diversity washing occurs when a company hires people from minority groups into roles that have no real function other than to create false confidence in their communities. Similarly, woke washing occurs when a company adopts the vocabulary and social justice narrative of minority groups without promoting real organisational change.4

Inclusion in Italy

This hypocritical narrative is still the standard for politicians and the mass media. Especially here in Italy, given our cultural debt on these issues. For example, the issue of racism is significantly underestimated, if not completely ignored. Many Italians still naively believe that integration is someone else’s problem. But you only have to study our colonial history or think about how badly politicians have managed immigration in the last two decades to have doubts.

As far as disability is concerned, Italy has had a law on digital accessibility since 2004.5 But this law was designed without sanctions and is therefore largely ignored by those who should apply it. Not to mention that the Italian Senate recently blocked the “DDL Zan”, a bill calling for measures to prevent and combat discrimination and violence based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.6 In these matters, sadly and predictably, our politicians prefer to obey the Vatican.7

According to a survey carried out by Demos&Pi and Demetra at the end of August 2021, 60% of respondents were in favour of the DDL Zan and only 25% were against it.8 According to a more recent survey by Ipsos, 49% of respondents said that the DDL Zan was a good law and would be helpful, while 31% said that it was wrong because existing laws already sanctioned discrimination.9 In both cases, supporters outnumber opponents.

The reality is that the road to inclusion in Italy will be a long and challenging one until our leadership evolves at least at the same rate as our citizens.

The peculiar Italian business ecosystem

In Italy, the number of enterprises with less than ten employees represents 95.1% of the total number of enterprises and employs 45% of the workforce. If we include small enterprises with between 10 and 49 employees, almost 100% of enterprises and 61% of employees are covered.10 Only 0.1% of Italian enterprises have more than 250 employees.

In this small and decentralised business ecosystem, D&I functions or diversity manager roles do not exist, and even the existence of HR departments is questionable. We don’t know how (or if) our micro and small businesses are managing inclusion issues; in other words, we don’t know what is happening to at least 61% of the workforce. Moreover, of the remaining 39%, only a tiny fraction are likely to benefit from D&I policies.

Inclusion in the workplace needs to be tackled first as a national cultural issue and then as an internal corporate issue. There’s no point in designing new, fancy corporate functions if those who run them are not aware of the problem or do not have the culture to understand why it is essential to act, starting with top managers and company owners.

Moreover, 60.4% of Italian companies have a turnover of less than 100 thousand euros per year and only a tiny 0.04% have a turnover of more than 250 million euros per year.11 Some companies may also see inclusion infrastructure as a budget issue.

How to be inclusive by design

Let’s face it: Italian companies only employ disabled people to comply with Law 68/99.12 And they are also quite picky about the type and degree of disability they accept. Is this real inclusion? You can certainly be selective about the skills you need, but not about the type of disability you have (or any other personal characteristic, for that matter). Quite apart from the ethics that a company may or may not have, this behaviour happens because of a lack of culture about what disability is. Most HR managers think about disability as if they were still in the last post-war century. It is not their fault. This medical (and ‘philanthropic’) view of disability is still the most common, even though the ICF is twenty years old.13

The key to inclusion is to evolve the culture beyond the Orange paradigm. Better paradigms are emerging all the time, and I believe these new models are the real key to creating an authentic, inclusive culture. You certainly do not need a D&I manager if you are a self-managed and purpose-driven company.

I work for a company called mondora; we build innovative software, and we do business design. But most importantly, we are a certified B Corp.14 Being a B Corp means voluntarily (and formally) choosing to generate social and environmental benefits while achieving your financial results. We also helped introduce this concept in Italy through a legislative decree that, since 2016, has allowed companies to choose to be “Società Benefit” (Benefit Company) with the dual purpose of profit and the common good.15

When we interact with our customers, we not only sell them a service or a product, we also share with them a new way of doing business that has a positive impact on society and the natural environment. We call it the Interdependence Agreement.

There are no managers in our company. When we make decisions, we use the method of sociocracy. Sociocracy is a form of governance (or, more precisely, self-governance) based on the equality of individuals. This equality is expressed in the organisation by creating a system of groups of individuals, called circles, which focus on different aspects of company life. The members of a circle deliberate together until they reach a decision that satisfies each of them. All voices are heard in the decision-making process.

Sociocracy balances the needs of the group with those of the individual, a fundamental way to keep a community healthy, and also a natural tool for agile, purpose- and value-driven organisations.16 Through sociocracy, we effectively overcome the classic and almost always toxic command and control approach to leadership.

Listening to all the voices and valuing individual differences is the key to inclusion. The evolutionary stage of an organization is crucial for the implementation of an inclusion policy that is not just a façade.

Two ways to do corporate inclusion

In 2019, we hired a person who had suffered a partial visual impairment as a result of an accident at work. Together, we tried to understand the best way to integrate Mario (invented name) into a work group suitable for his personal and professional development. Mario’s professional background was not in information technology.

In order to help him choose a path that was in line with his attitudes, we decided to set up a training program that would last for about a year, during which he would learn the basic theoretical and technical concepts of a number of subjects related to different job roles: user experience design, application testing, software development and systems engineering.

The journey continues today through mentoring and tutoring for the activities Mario has chosen to shape his future in the company.

We wanted to disrupt both the dysfunctional practice of hiring disabled people solely to meet a legal obligation, parking them in a limbo of unproductivity (with all the negative psychological consequences that entails), and the practice of choosing to hire only highly skilled disabled people without planning a long-term programme of inclusion and professionalisation. Companies need to make a commitment to inclusion.

Another way to take inclusion seriously is to design and implement accessible products. The group to which mondora belongs has more than one million four hundred thousand B2B customers, distributed between companies and professionals, which means that for each of them there is an exponential number of employees who can benefit from the design and implementation of accessible software products.

In 2019, we began building a design system that will apply to all of the Group’s software products, providing rigorous standards of digital accessibility and inclusivity.

The vast majority of digital products today do not have an acceptable level of accessibility. On the contrary, we believe that it is a clear ethical choice to develop product management strategies that include digital accessibility. The first step is to raise awareness among middle and senior managers, who are often the most difficult obstacle to the spread of accessibility in software design.


These are examples of an inclusive culture from two different perspectives: the inclusion of the person in the work group by fostering their personal growth, and the inclusion of the customer by making the product accessible, which guarantees an exponentially positive impact.

The natural ecosystem for inclusion is a workplace where people’s wellbeing and business profit are not at odds. Purpose-driven companies are the agents of this evolutionary leap, and sociocracy empowers people by involving them in all company decisions.

To understand the importance of having a purpose other than profit, we can borrow Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.17 Maslow places physiological needs at the base of the pyramid. At the top is self-actualisation, the achievement of one’s full potential as a human being. By analogy, at the bottom of the hierarchy of corporate needs are the primary objectives, which are concrete results to be achieved in a relatively short period of time through specific marketing tactics; moving up, we find the mission, which is an overall long-term plan to create value for the company. Finally, there is the company purpose, which is the reason for the company’s existence other than to make money.

The pursuit of a purpose other than profit is for the organisation what self-actualisation is for the individual: the higher level of achievement: the full potential of the organisation. Having the common good as your purpose makes you inclusive by design.

  1. Gartner Human Resources Glossary, “Diversity and Inclusion (D&I)“, 2021
  2. Quote Investigator, “Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results”, 23/03/2017
  3. Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, Brussels, NELSON PARKER, 2014
  4. Forbes, “The Dangers Of ‘Diversity Washing’ And What To Do Instead”, 30/11/2020
  5. Normattiva, “LEGGE 9 gennaio 2004, n. 4”, 03/11/2021
  6., “Ddl Zan affossato in Senato: cosa è successo”, 27/11/2021
  7. Corriere Della Sera, “Vaticano contro il ddl Zan: «Fermate la legge, viola il Concordato»”, 22/06/2021
  8. Governo Italiano, “Elenco Sondaggi”, 2021
  9. Ipsos, “Cos’è il DDL Zan e cosa ne pensa la gente delle discriminazioni di genere?”, 27/10/2021
  10. Istat, “Rapporto annuale 2020 – La situazione del paese”, 03/07/2020
  11., “Il 60,4% delle aziende italiane fattura meno di 100mila euro”, 2019
  12. Normattiva, “LEGGE 12 marzo 1999, n. 68”, 03/11/2021
  13. World Health Organization, “International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF)”, 2021
  14. Certified B Corporation, “B Impact Report. mondora”, 2021
  15. Normattiva, “LEGGE 28 dicembre 2015, n. 208”, 05/11/2021
  16. Ted J. Rau, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices One Song. Shared Power With Sociocracy, Amherst, 2018, Sociocracy For All
  17. Verywell Mind, “The 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”, 19/03/2021