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April 27, 2021

Inclusion is More Than Just a Seat at the Table – It's a Voice Too

We often hear the common business jargon, “a seat at the table” as a career goal or destination. More recently, many boards and organizations are being confronted with the optics of their table and are keeping themselves accountable with diversity metrics that include requiring a certain percentage of an underrepresented group within their leadership population or adding new members to their board of directors to improve their diversity score. And although I would never be one to critique the effort for progress, I believe organizations who focus solely on the metric of diversity at the table are missing the true opportunity for diverse representation.

It’s more than a seat at the table, it’s a voice at the table. And it’s more than a voice at the table, it’s a unique voice that’s listened to, respected, and deemed valuable.

Is the rest of your organization’s culture prepared for more representation at the table? Is the diversity objective one of assimilation or belonging? The honest answers and action resulting from those questions is where we unlock the potential for lasting change and impact.

Two guys and a woman

More than a metric

First, let’s unpack the jargon.

When we view employees with a positive people philosophy, we can assume that people who are a part of the organization want to utilize their knowledge, skills, and abilities to make an impact. When we say, “a seat at the table,” we mean a place where our voice is both represented and heard by others who have influence—the presence of both is crucial.

A recent study from McKinsey showed that while overall sentiment on diversity was 52% positive and 31% negative, feelings on inclusion were much worse, at only 29% positive and 61% negative. When it comes to diversity, if we only give someone a seat at the table but have failed to prepare the table as a space where someone leaves that meeting knowing a dissenting perspective is welcome, their voice matters, and other seats are filled by members with a growth mindset for progress, then how valuable is that seat really?

What is happening now?

My role provides an opportunity for me to partner with hundreds of organizations, and it’s become clear that diversity is top of mind for every executive right now. This is no longer an HR-owned initiative, but rather an organizational wide priority spanning across all members of the C-Suite. Executives want to know about the numbers, the trends, and the actions they can take to increase diversity. And when we share how our tools can support them in this goal, we emphasize that the technology is only to aid the evolution of the culture, not to be the solution alone.

We ask the questions, “Why is your organization focused on this diversity metric? What do you plan to do with this data?” The answers often reveal the “why” and journey ahead.

If the primary reason your organization is prioritizing diversity as a key initiative is due to social pressures, or even the data correlation between diversity and profitability, you’re missing a tremendous opportunity to humanize your workforce. What’s more important is the desire from those within your organization to understand the greater value that exists in investing in other humans and listening to the unique stories of people who are not like us.

Diversity metrics may lead to a shift in awareness and accountability; however, the key is that a cultural shift continues to take place throughout all people and all levels within the organization. Change and equity requires more than a metric. What is needed is an assessment of cultural norms and behaviors. The rest of the business culture must shift alongside a growing table of decision makers. It is not just that we have diversity alone, it is what we do with it and how do the benefits gained from a diverse group of people working together influence and impact change and progress. Is your organization assessing your recruiting processes, performance reviews, and mentoring programs to be more inclusive, widen the candidate pool, and foster belonging? How would you currently rate your company on how they prioritize learning and development, welcome new ideas and ways of thinking? How are the decisions made for the people the decisions impact? How is their voice regularly heard and represented?

What can we do about it?

Set the Table

If you currently consider yourself in a position where you can offer a seat at the table, I’d encourage you to challenge yourself and your team of peers to look around your table and assess by asking yourself these questions:

  • What stands out?
  • What can be called out and changed?
  • Where can you create opportunity for those who are not represented?

“Setting the table” simply means creating an environment where new voices will be welcomed and heard. And this level of inclusivity isn’t limited to meetings at the top of the organizational ladder—it’s vitally important for every table in every meeting. Even virtual meetings can benefit from inclusive practices.

Keep Learning

Fostering a learning culture toward diversity, inclusion and belonging requires that individuals draw on their own unique experiences, as members of groups they identify with, to share based on their unique gifts and perspectives. It has been reinforced this past year especially, that one of the most powerful ways to learn is to listen. What is the sentiment of your culture? What are your employees experiencing by being a part of your organization?

Stay Engaged

Join or create a community that harnesses the power of belonging in service to your people, your company, and the community at large. UKG offers its people the opportunity to engage in Diversity Networks, which are voluntary, employee-led groups whose aim is to foster a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with our organization. When you bring passionate people together in the name of progress (and offer the bonus of full support from executive leadership), magic happens.

Your role within building a culture of belonging can be an active member, participant, executive sponsor, mentor, learner, or active ally. Regardless of how you opt to get involved, know you have a role to play.


As more seats are created for women at the table will they be welcomed to be authentic, challenge the current thinking, and share their unique perspective? Will a new voice be welcomed or silenced?

When you create environments, of mattering and engaged voices at every level, it will benefit the entire organization. You will not have to engage in campaigns to hire more diversity—diversity will come to you. I work at UKG because I know that our leaders and people are invested in getting to know, understand, and build up the whole person and that our leaders are continuously developed and expected to grow in our awareness of the responsibility we all have to foster a culture of belonging.

We cannot let the roaring call of equity fade to the background as merely a metric accomplished by filling more seats. Rather, we should focus on how each of us and our organizations are creating a more equitable table today and better preparing a table of belonging for people of current and future generations.