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. Living, first because of my bad English (I’ll do a lot of editing in the next few days, I think) and second because I hope that this paper will be used to start a discussion on those topics.
The Orange paradigm
In its Human Resources Glossary1, Gartner defines D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) as an autonomous function within organizations, or a sub-function of Human Resources, whose purpose is to ensure that the organization is composed of different individuals (based on individual characteristics, values, beliefs, and background). This function encourages a work environment where all employees feel respected, accepted, supported, and valued. That is good. However, this new corporate function is consistent with the traditional top-down approach that generates most of today’s work environment pathologies.
Creating an inclusion infrastructure is the standard way to deal with diversity for highly hierarchical organizations. But I think that 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
In his remarkable book “Reinventing Organizations,” 3 Frédéric Laloux defines the evolutionary level of most contemporary organizations as the “Orange” paradigm:
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
Large multinational companies are the best example of this paradigm. But the same materialistic and consumerist view is the norm in companies of all sizes and even in most political, artistic, and cultural systems. In the Orange paradigm, profit is the only purpose for both companies and human beings.
Social responsibility is in fashion today. A growing number of companies are differentiating themselves by claiming to be purpose-driven. But are they sincere? When someone who would have sold his mother to close a new contract suddenly becomes a champion of social responsibility, the clues of quackery are significant. Greenwashing tactics are so widespread that it is complicated to trust corporate storytelling nowadays. The average narrative is full of buzzwords such as “inclusion,” “innovation,” and the omnipresent “sustainability.” Everyone is talking nonsense about it, and it’s hard to differentiate between liars and honest advocates.
In that kind of inauthentic arena, the risk of diversity washing is high. Diversity washing happens when a company hires people who belong to minority groups in roles with no actual function other than to create false trust in their communities. Similarly, we speak of “woke washing,” when a company appropriates minority groups’ vocabulary and the narrative on social justice without promoting any real organizational change.4
Inclusion in Italy
This hypocritical narrative is still the standard for politicians and mass media. Especially here in Italy, considering our cultural debt on those topics. For example, racism issues are significantly underestimated, if not completely removed. Many Italians still naively think that inclusion is someone else’s problem. Yet, it is enough to study our colonial history or think about how bad politicians have managed immigration in the last two decades to have any doubts.
Regarding disability, Italy has had a law dealing with digital accessibility since 2004.5 But this law has been designed without sanctioning and therefore largely ignored by those who should apply it. Not to mention that the Italian Senate recently blocked the “DDL Zan,” a proposed law that called for measures to prevent and combat discrimination and violence on the grounds of sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.6 On those matters, sadly and predictably, our politicians prefer to obey the Vatican.7
A survey done by Demos&Pi and Demetra at the end of August 2021 says that 60% of interviewed were favorable to the DDL Zan, and only 25% were contrary.8 According to a more recent study by Ipsos, 49% of respondents say that the DDL Zan is a good law and would be helpful, while 31% say it is wrong because the laws in force already sanction discrimination.9 In both cases, those in favor exceed the opposites.
The reality is that the path to inclusion in Italy will be a long and challenging journey until our leadership will evolve.
The peculiar Italian business ecosystem
In Italy, the number of companies with less than ten employees represents 95,1% of the total and employs 45% of workers. If we add small companies, from 10 to 49 employees, almost 100% of companies and 61% of workers are covered.10 Only 0,1% of Italian companies exceed 250 employees.
In this small and decentralized business ecosystem, D&I functions or Diversity Manager roles are inexistent, and even the existence of HR departments is questionable. We don’t know how (or if) our micro, and small companies manage inclusion issues; in other words, we don’t know what happens to at least 61% of workers. Furthermore, probably only a tiny fraction of the remaining 39% benefits from D&I policies.
Inclusion in the workplace must be tackled first as a national cultural issue and then as a company’s internal one. There’s no point in designing new fancy corporate functions if those who run them aren’t aware of the problem or haven’t got the culture to understand why it is essential to act—starting from top managers and companies’ owners.
Moreover, 60,4% of Italian companies have a turnover of fewer than 100 thousand euros a year, and only a tiny 0,04% have a turnover of more than 250 million euros a year.11 Maybe some companies see inclusion infrastructure also as a budget problem.
How to be inclusive by design
Let’s be honest: Italian companies hire disabled people only to comply with the 68/99 Law.12 And they are also quite picky about the type and level of disability they accept. Is this real inclusion? You can undoubtedly be selective about the skills you need but not about the kind of disability one has (or any other personal characteristic, for that matter). Besides the ethics that a company may or may not have, this behavior happens because of a lack of culture about what disability is. Most HR managers think of disability as if they still were in the last century postwar period. It is not their fault. This medical (and “philanthropic”) vision of disability still is the most common even though the ICF is twenty years old.13
The key to inclusion is to evolve the corporate culture beyond the Orange paradigm. Better paradigms are constantly emerging, and I believe those 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 above all, we are a certified B-Corp.14 Being a B-Corp means choosing voluntarily (and formally) to create social and environmental benefits while achieving your financial results. We also contributed to the introduction of this concept in Italy through a law decree that, since 2016, allows 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 do not sell them only a service or a product, we also share a new way of doing business that positively impacts society and the natural environment. We call it Interdependence Agreement.
There are no managers in our company. When we make decisions, we apply the sociocracy method. Sociocracy is a form of governance (or, more precisely, self-governance) that presumes the equality of individuals. This equality is expressed in the organization by creating a system of groups of individuals, called circles, focused on various aspects of corporate life. The members of a circle reason together until they reach a decision that satisfies each of them. We hear all voices in the decision-making process.
Sociocracy balances the group’s needs with those of the individual, a fundamental way to keep a community healthy and also a natural tool for Agile, purpose-driven, and value-driven organizations.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 to implementing inclusion policies that are not just a façade.
Two ways to do corporate inclusion
In 2019 we hired a person who suffered a partial impairment of visual function due to an accident at work. Together we tried to understand the best possible way to integrate Mario (invented name) into a workgroup suitable for his personal and professional growth. Mario came from a professional history different from that of information technology.
To help him choose a path consistent with his attitudes we sociocratically decided to plan a training program lasting about a year, through which he could learn the basic theoretical and technical notions of a series of subjects pertaining to different job roles: user experience design; application testing; software development and systems engineering.
The path continues today through mentoring and tutoring for the activities chosen by Mario to shape his future in the company.
We wanted to disrupt both the dysfunctional practice of hiring disabled people exclusively to comply with a legal obligation, parking them in a limbo of unproductivity (with all the negative psychological consequences that follows) and the practice of choosing to hire only highly trained disabled people, without planning a long-term program for inclusion and professionalization. Companies need to get their skin in the game.
Another way to get serious about inclusion is to design and implement accessible products. The Group to which mondora belongs has over one million and 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 take advantage of designing and implementing accessible software products.
Starting from 2019, we begin implementing a Design System that applies to all the Group’s software products and provides stringent standards of digital accessibility and inclusiveness.
Today, the vast majority of digital products do not have an acceptable level of accessibility. We believe, on the contrary, that it is a clear ethical choice to devise product management strategies that include digital accessibility. The first step is to raise awareness among middle and top managers, who are often the most challenging obstacle to the spread of accessibility in software design.
Those are examples of inclusive culture viewed from two different perspectives, the inclusion of the person in the workgroup through the nurturing of his personal growth and the inclusion of the customers through the accessibility of the product, which guarantees an exponential positive impact.
The natural ecosystem for inclusion is a workplace in which people’s well-being and company profit are not contradictory. Purpose-driven companies are the agents for this evolutionary leap and sociocracy empowers people involving them in all the company’s decisions.
To understand the importance of having a purpose other than profit, we can borrow Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.17 At the base of the pyramid, Maslow places physiological needs. At the top, there is self-actualization, achieving one’s full potential as a human being. By analogy, at the bottom of the hierarchy of companies needs, there are the primary objectives, which are the concrete results to be obtained in a relatively short time through specific marketing tactics; while going up, we find the mission, which is a general long-term plan to create value for the company. Finally, there is the corporate purpose; that is why the company exists other than making money.
Pursuing a purpose other than mere profit is for the organization what self-actualization is for a human being: the higher level of achievement—the company’s full potential. Having the common good as your purpose makes you inclusive by design.
- Gartner Human Resources Glossary, “Diversity and Inclusion (D&I)“, 2021
- Quote Investigator, “Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results”, 23/03/2017
- Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, Brussels, NELSON PARKER, 2014
- Forbes, “The Dangers Of ‘Diversity Washing’ And What To Do Instead”, 30/11/2020
- Normattiva, “LEGGE 9 gennaio 2004, n. 4”, 03/11/2021
- LeggiOggi.it, “Ddl Zan affossato in Senato: cosa è successo”, 27/11/2021
- Corriere Della Sera, “Vaticano contro il ddl Zan: «Fermate la legge, viola il Concordato»”, 22/06/2021
- Governo Italiano, “Elenco Sondaggi”, 2021
- Ipsos, “Cos’è il DDL Zan e cosa ne pensa la gente delle discriminazioni di genere?”, 27/10/2021
- Istat, “Rapporto annuale 2020 – La situazione del paese”, 03/07/2020
- Truenumbers.it, “Il 60,4% delle aziende italiane fattura meno di 100mila euro”, 2019
- Normattiva, “LEGGE 12 marzo 1999, n. 68”, 03/11/2021
- World Health Organization, “International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF)”, 2021
- Certified B Corporation, “B Impact Report. mondora”, 2021
- Normattiva, “LEGGE 28 dicembre 2015, n. 208”, 05/11/2021
- Ted J. Rau, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices One Song. Shared Power With Sociocracy, Amherst, 2018, Sociocracy For All
- Verywell Mind, “The 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”, 19/03/2021