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The inclusion imperative for boards

Redefining board responsibilities to support organisational inclusion

Yes, boards do matter for inclusion

Corporate and nonprofit boards of directors—spurred by a mix of persuasive research; pressure from shareholders, employees, customers and business partners; and their own intuitive sense of what’s right—have been working for years to improve diversity in their own ranks. For example, the percentage of women on Fortune 500 boards rose to 22.5 per cent in 2018, up from 15.7 per cent at the start of this decade. People of colour on Fortune 500 boards increased from 12.8 per cent in 2010 to 16.1 per cent in 2018.1

Defining diversity and inclusion

While diversity and inclusion may be inextricably linked, they are not one and the same.

  • Diversity refers to the presence of people who, as a group, have a wide range of characteristics, seen and unseen, which they were born or have acquired. These characteristics may include their gender identity, race or ethnicity, military or veteran status, LGBTQ+ status, disability status and more.
  • Inclusion refers to the practice of making all members of an organisation feel welcomed and giving them equal opportunity to connect, belong and grow—to contribute to the organisation, advance their skill sets and careers, and feel comfortable and confident being their authentic selves.

The main difference between the two is that diversity is a state of being and is not itself something that is “governed,” while inclusion is a set of behaviours and can be “governed.”

Therefore, this report emphasises the board’s role in governing inclusion. This by no means diminishes the importance of diversity and the need to continue to drive progress. On the contrary, boards should engage in conversations with management about improving diversity and this in itself is an inclusive practice.

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There’s little debate that driving diversity should continue to be an important priority for all organisational leaders; nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly evident that focusing on diversity without also focusing on inclusion is not a winning strategy.2 Management teams—their efforts often led by chief diversity, inclusion, or human resources officers—have started to recognise this and some have taken concrete action to develop and execute inclusion strategies that go beyond diversity to create inclusive cultures at their organisations.

Inclusion, however, is an issue whose importance touches leaders beyond the C-suite. So, what can boards do to further promote and solidify an inclusive culture at the organisations they oversee? A great deal, it turns out. Although boards of directors remain one step removed from the C-suite’s execution focus, they have a meaningful role to play in building an inclusive enterprise and they can govern in ways that put C-suites and organisations on a positive path.

Why should boards care about inclusion?

“The board setting an example is important,” states a director of a Fortune 500 industrial products manufacturer. “If the board is not both diverse and inclusive, it lacks credibility with management”—as likely as well with investors, customers, employees and other stakeholders.

Yet boardroom conversation around the board’s influence over inclusion is often scarce. A review of some charters for board committees in areas with potential diversity and inclusion implications—such as nominating and governance, human resources and compensation—revealed that while more than half mentioned diversity and inclusion, these references most often only pertained to demographic composition (diversity). A small minority of these charters made direct references to the board’s oversight of inclusive organisational culture, practices, or strategy (inclusion).3 Additionally, while many boards use tools such as board competency matrices in their succession planning efforts, most of these tools do not provide detailed insight into board members’ experiences and capabilities, including their experience or capability in practising inclusive behaviour.4

Qualitative research further reinforces the need for additional board focus on inclusion. Interviews with board members and executives of organisations across the marketplace reveal that a large majority of boards may not consider diversity and inclusion as separate concepts. Indeed, most boards’ current efforts in these areas focus mostly on diversity.5

Boards have an interest in encouraging inclusion as well as diversity, however. The uplift organisations receive from having an inclusive culture and not just a diverse workforce, is substantial. Where an inclusive culture exists, employees are much more likely to see themselves as part of a high-performing organisation in which teams collaborate and consistently meet client and customer needs. Teams also perform better when they are both diverse and inclusive—there is less groupthink and more innovation.6 In fact, the board, as a team, can also exemplify this pattern. When comparing low- and high-performing boards, high-performing boards are more likely to exhibit gender balance and inclusive behaviours.7

These outcomes of inclusion can translate into financial results. When operating under an inclusive culture and inclusive talent practices, organisations generate up to 30 per cent higher income per employee, are more profitable than their competitors,8 and become eight times more likely to achieve positive business outcomes.9

In short, because diversity alone does not ensure that organisations are able to bring a wide variety of insights, life experiences and perspectives to bear on their challenges and opportunities, boards should also value and promote inclusion as a separate yet connected priority.

It is time for boards to recognise both their potential for influencing inclusion and their responsibility to do so, not only for the sake of their own organisations and employees but, where relevant, also for the sake of their various stakeholders. “Shareholders ask about diversity and inclusion because they know [diversity and inclusion] add to long-term shareholder value,” says Kosta Kartsotis, chairman and CEO, Fossil Group. Furthermore, as markets and customer preferences shift, boards and executives benefit from recognising that prioritising the inclusion of diverse customers and stakeholders is key to staying competitive in the marketplace.10

How can boards shift into an inclusion governance mindset? While it may seem an amorphous undertaking, it is possible for boards to chart a clear way forward that embeds inclusion into every facet of the organisation’s work, workforce and workplace.

Influencing inclusion: The board’s responsibilities in five key areas

“It all starts at the board to set the tone for inclusion as a priority both internally and externally.”

—Ken Denman, governance & nominating committee chair, Motorola Solutions

Past research reveals and our interviews confirm, that boards of directors traditionally own five key areas of organisational oversight: 11

  • Strategy
  • Governance
  • Talent
  • Integrity
  • Performance

As these responsibilities evolve to account for changes in regulations, the business environment and society in general, the role boards play in influencing inclusion within each of these five areas is becoming even more important.


“Boards don't run the company—they govern. Boards can ask questions about the culture, whether or not it’s inclusive and how to support an inclusive culture with the business strategy. That's the board's job.”

—Director, various Fortune 500 organisations


In the most inclusive organisations, inclusion is seen by all employees as critical to business strategy.12 However, building an inclusive culture does not happen overnight. Boards can expedite progress by helping management define a common vision for what inclusion means and embed that vision directly into the business strategy.

In defining the vision for inclusion, the board and management will want to consider how individual, organisational and societal biases may interfere with reaching inclusion goals. For example, if individuals with different identities are hired or promoted, or leave the organisation, at unequal rates, what could this indicate about the level of inclusion employees might experience at the organisation? If community partners and vendors do not have inclusive policies within their own firms and operations, what signals might a partnership or contractual relationship send to employees and the marketplace? If products and services are not designed to meet the needs of a diverse set of customers, how might this affect the company’s bottom line?

Additionally, the definition of inclusion should tie into the organisation’s objectives, vision, mission and strategy, perhaps using language directly from the organisation’s mission statement. The tighter the alignment, the more deeply the inclusion message will resonate with board members, executives and the broader workforce, and the more likely it will be to elicit behaviour changes that contribute to a more inclusive culture.


“To truly embody and govern inclusion, the board should reflect the diversity of [the organisation’s] customer base in its composition, create an inclusive culture within the boardroom itself, and integrate inclusive thinking and behaviours into all of the ways that the board operates.”

—Trudy Bourgeois, founder and CEO, Centre for Workforce Excellence

It is incumbent upon boards to govern and operate with an inclusion lens—particularly as they preside over shifts in strategy, advise on major investments and monitor risks. Boards that demonstrate inclusive governance practices integrate inclusive thinking in all board proceedings and understand how their actions and decisions may lead to inclusion-related implications. Consider these potential boardroom scenarios:

  • As an example of how board members interact, when having heated discussions or discussing sensitive topics in board meetings, are all board members able to contribute equally and do they feel welcome to do so? If not, how can the board operate differently to create an open and authentic environment for all of its members?
  • As an example of governing business strategy, when the board is helping to evaluate whether to acquire another organisation, does the board consider how the target’s level of inclusion—informed in part by the diversity of its workforce—compares to the organisation’s own? If the target is not as advanced in these areas, what risks could the organisation thereby assume and how can they be mitigated?

Similarly, inclusive board committees consider inclusion as a key element when crafting and executing their separate charters, perhaps going so far as to explicitly detail expectations for operating in an inclusive manner.

As a first step in holding itself accountable for inclusive governance practices, boards may even consider establishing a committee, temporary or permanent, focussed specifically on inclusion. This inclusion committee’s mandate would be to elevate inclusion’s visibility in the boardroom and promote inclusive governance practices across all board committees and procedures.


“Where the board can influence inclusion is in asking questions like, ‘What is [management] doing to ensure that people at all levels and of all backgrounds have an opportunity to be developed and mentored into the senior management levels?’”

—General Lester Lyles (USAF retired), Chairman, USAA and director, General Dynamics and NASA

It is often said: Tone starts at the top. Boards can best advance the inclusion agenda not just by embodying inclusive leadership traits among their own members, but also by holding management accountable for developing the organisation’s talent—executives, managers and front-queue employees—into inclusive leaders.

In general, inclusive leaders recognise and value people and groups based on their unique characteristics and learn to mitigate biases stemming from stereotypes. They also leverage the thinking of diverse groups of individuals for smarter ideation and decision-making, reducing the odds of being blindsided by up to 30 per cent, increasing innovation by up to 20 per cent and fostering a sense of trust.13

Deloitte has identified six signature traits of inclusive leadership: commitment, courage, cognisance, curiosity, cultural intelligence and collaboration (figure 3).14 Board members can use these traits as a starting point for modelling inclusive leadership in all of their daily interactions and behaviours, both inside and outside of the boardroom.

To promote a pipeline of inclusive leaders, boards can encourage management to set these same six traits as formal competencies for senior leaders by embedding them into the organisation’s performance management, professional development and succession planning processes. “Organisations would rarely promote business leaders who don’t demonstrate a level of financial knowledge and this same thought process should be applied for demonstration of inclusive behaviours,” says Trudy Bourgeois, founder and CEO of the Center for Workforce Excellence. “Inclusion is, in fact, a business imperative. So, if you are being considered for a top leadership position, then you should have already demonstrated competency as an inclusive leader.”

Finally, boards have a role in challenging management to cultivate inclusive leadership skills throughout the enterprise. Employees see inclusion as one of the most important factors in deciding where to work and they want inclusion to be fundamental to their daily work experiences.15 To achieve this, boards, as well as middle management and other employee groups, also play a critical part in championing and driving inclusive behaviours and practices. Collective accountability from all employees for fostering an inclusive culture is key to a successful and sustainable long-term inclusion strategy.


“When boards think and act inclusively, it sends a very clear message [about] what's important to the company.”

—Billie Williamson, director, Kraton Corporation, Cushman & Wakefield, and Pentair

By setting the tone for inclusion and prioritising it both internally and externally, a board has an opportunity to hold itself accountable for maintaining the integrity of its inclusion vision and to improve public perception of the organisation and its brand.

Board members can advance a commitment to inclusion by leveraging their unique social and political capital to be a champion and role model, while looking for opportunities to directly acknowledge and formally promote their commitment to inclusion: in communications to shareholders, in public appearances, in interviews and conference presentations, and informally in networking and professional conversations.

Elsewhere, the board can guide management to consider how the organisation itself talks about or represents inclusion in communications—whitepapers, press releases, marketing materials—and what the organisation’s people say in the media. Finally, the board can encourage management to consider the integrity of the prospective partner’s inclusion vision when entering into alliances with other organisations or contracts with supply chain partners.


“[Driving] inclusion has to be a shared responsibility, but the roles are different. Management executes and advances the [inclusion] mission, and the board holds management and the organisation accountable to that mission.”

—Sheila Penrose, chairman, Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. and director, McDonald’s Corporation

Transformations of any kind are subject to fatigue and failure unless someone is held accountable for outcomes. Building and maintaining an inclusive culture is no exception, which requires the board to hold the entire organisation—management, all employees and the board itself—accountable.

It is the board’s role to monitor diversity and inclusion metrics at a high level, while requesting that management collect and analyse the relevant data (see the sidebar, “Measuring diversity and inclusion”). For instance, roughly 32 per cent of respondents to a 2017 human capital survey indicated their organisations do not measure or monitor diversity and inclusion in their recruiting efforts.16 Boards can play a significant role in closing the gap in this as well as in other areas. With data, the board can not only track the organisation’s progress, but also guide its own efforts to operationalise the board’s multifaceted role in embedding inclusive thinking and behaviour in strategy, talent, governance, integrity and performance.

Boards can enhance management’s accountability for progress in inclusion by purposefully rewarding good inclusion performance. While 78 per cent of respondents to the aforementioned survey believed inclusion to be a competitive advantage, a mere 6 per cent of respondents indicated that their organisations actually tie diversity and inclusion outcomes to performance management and compensation.17 Therefore, at the most senior levels of the organisation, boards should consider linking some percentage of performance-based compensation to meeting inclusion objectives. For the rest of the workforce, boards may also encourage management to develop ways to hold all employees accountable for inclusive behaviours. These may include tactics such as developing formal performance expectations or creating monetary incentives, awards, or recognition programmes.

Finally, boards should also evaluate their own performance in individually embodying inclusive leadership traits and collectively conducting inclusive governance practices. This evaluation can be incorporated into annual board self-assessments or, if a board decides to form an inclusion-specific board committee, through the inclusion committee members’ due diligence.

Where organisational inclusion objectives are not being met, the board can work with management to develop plans for corrective action. Such plans may include deployment of additional awareness and education for areas in need of improvement, or removal of employees who exhibit actions contrary to an inclusive culture.

What can boards do now?

“The endgame is inclusion, and that is how you come up with better results and better solutions for shareholders.”

—Director, Fortune 500 petroleum company

Creating and sustaining an inclusive culture may be one of the most difficult challenges an organisation’s leadership, including its board, can undertake. Unlike engineering a better product or rooting out process inefficiencies, it can require teaching people how to rethink or eliminate deeply ingrained and even subconscious perceptions and behaviours. But the potential rewards are too dramatic, the moral imperatives too strong, and the risks of failure too great for boards not to lead on this issue.

The concepts outlined in this report are not intended to serve as a one-size-fits-all solution. Each organisation should adapt its inclusion governance approach to reflect its own characteristics: its size and geographic reach; the complexity of its organisational structure; whether it is public, private, or nonprofit; the industry in which it competes; its current levels of diversity and inclusion maturity; and the size and complexity of its board.

Nonetheless, taking steps to cultivate inclusion in the board’s five key areas of responsibility can help lay a path for boards to:

  • Articulate the current state of the board’s approach to inclusion governance
  • Assess that approach against leading practices
  • Identify what can be done to achieve inclusive governance goals
  • Implement the changes necessary to accomplish those goals

By setting an example of inclusion in the boardroom, by advocating for an inclusive culture both internally and externally, and by holding management accountable for taking concrete measures to embed a culture of inclusion throughout the enterprise, boards can move a needle that’s been advancing far too slowly for far too long.

Appendix: Research methodology

The idea that boards of directors have a role in governing inclusion, or in promoting an inclusive culture within their organisations, has not been widespread across the marketplace. A recent and thorough review of existing governance, diversity and inclusion literature uncovered no material works on the subject. The topic’s novelty was further confirmed by an analysis of board committee charters, which found little to no direct mention of inclusion governance as a board responsibility. Similarly, interviews with current governance, diversity and inclusion thought leaders uncovered little previous or current work in board governance of inclusion, though most demonstrated support for the concept.

Deloitte Governance Framework

This report outlines five key areas that boards can influence in governing inclusion. The recommendations are shaped both by Deloitte’s understanding of the traditional responsibilities of corporate boards and by the insights of seasoned board members and governance leaders. They represent an evolution, through an inclusion lens, of the five key board governance elements, where the responsibility of the board is typically heightened, first introduced in Framing the future of corporate governance: Deloitte Governance Framework.18 This framework and its elements are largely supported by existing governance literature.


As part of the research for this report, the authors interviewed 14 executives and board members, as well as two diversity and inclusion subject matter experts. These interviewees currently sit on the boards of or hold executive management positions at 45 organisations, 19 of which are Fortune 500 companies (data collected via BoardEx).

The interviewees were identified either by Deloitte professionals or by board members at the organisations with which they are or had been associated. All of the interviewees met one or more of the following criteria:

  1. The individual currently serves or had served on the board of a Fortune 500 company.
  2. The individual is or had been an executive at a Fortune 500 company, where he or she has or had close ties to or knowledge of governance matters.
  3. The individual’s organisation has demonstrated leadership in diversity and inclusion efforts, with accomplishments such as receiving a nomination from the National Association of Corporate Directors NXT initiative annual awards, which recognises boards of directors that promote greater diversity and inclusion.
  4. The individual has demonstrated expertise in the areas of governance, diversity and inclusion.

The interviews were conducted by phone and were semi-structured. They covered questions that included, but are not limited to, how the interviewees’ organisations define diversity and inclusion; how the interviewees saw the role of the board in governing inclusion; and which inclusion governance practices already were in place at their organisations. Two researchers reviewed the transcripts to capture key themes.

Deloitte Diversity & Inclusion Client Service Centre of Excellence

​Deloitte LLP’s Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) consulting practice serves clients through cutting-edge marketplace solutions that engage diverse talent; build inclusive leaders; and foster innovative, courageous and equitable cultures. Our work in D&I strategy, bias mitigation and inclusive leadership engages board- and C-suite-level executives in strengthening inclusive cultures and diverse workplaces in pursuit of business outcomes.

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The authors would like to thank the 2018 Deloitte Board Council—a membership of nonboard Deloitte partners and principals assisting with the governance process at Deloitte—for their passion and leadership in driving the development of this piece: Ellen Basilico, Christina Bieniek, Kristen Cove, Mohana Dissanayake, Nnamdi Lowrie, Prateep Menon, Emily Mossburg, Kavitha Prabhakar, Jon Raphael, Michael Rohrig, Thomas Rudegeair, and Michael Stephan.

Thank you to Mark Steiger, vice chairman of the Deloitte US board of directors, and Sam Balaji, Global Risk and Advisory leader and member of the Deloitte US board of directors, for their unwavering support in advising the Board Council.

Last but not least, thank you also to Devon Dickau and Shanna Traphoner-Liu for their deep expertise in diversity and inclusion and tireless contributions to shape the research and writing of this piece.

Cover image by: Neil Webb

  1. Deloitte and Alliance for Board Diversity, Missing pieces report: The 2018 board diversity census of women and minorities on Fortune 500 boards, 2019.

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  2. Laura Sherbin and Ripa Rashid, “Diversity doesn’t stick without inclusion,” Harvard Business Review, February 1, 2017.

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  3. See the appendix for a description of the research methodology.

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  4. Deloitte, 2017 board diversity survey: Seeing is believing, 2017.

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  5. See the appendix for a description of the interview methodology.

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  6. Juliet Bourke, Which Two Heads Are Better Than One? How Diverse Teams Create Breakthrough Ideas and Make Smarter Decisions (Sydney: Australian Institute of Company Directors, 2016).

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  7. Juliet Bourke et al., Toward gender parity: Women on boards initiative, Deloitte, October 2016.

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  8. Stacia Sherman Garr, Candace Atamanik, and David Mallon, High-impact talent management: The new talent management maturity model, Bersin by Deloitte, 2015.

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  9. Juliet Bourke and Bernadette Dillon, “The diversity and inclusion revolution: Eight powerful truths,” Deloitte Review 22, January 22, 2018.

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  10. Deloitte and Australian Human Rights Commission, Missing out: The business case for customer diversity, 2017.

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  11. Deloitte, Framing the future of corporate governance: Deloitte Governance Framework, 2016.

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  12. Stacia Garr and Candace Atamanik, High-impact diversity and inclusion: Maturity model and top findings, Bersin by Deloitte, 2017.

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  13. Juliet Bourke and Bernadette Dillon, The six signature traits of inclusive leadership: Thriving in a diverse new world, Deloitte Insights, April 14, 2016.

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  14. Deborah L. DeHaas, Brent Bachus, and Eliza Horn, Unleashing the power of inclusion: Attracting and engaging in the evolving workforce, Deloitte, 2017.

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  15. Juliet Bourke, Stacia Garr, Ardie van Berkel, and Jungle Wong, Diversity and inclusion: The reality gap, Deloitte University Press, February 28, 2017.

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  16. Ibid.

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  17. Deloitte, Framing the future of corporate governance.

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