Toward an Inclusive Job Market: Five Paradoxes

The pursuit of greater diversity in organizations doesn’t always guarantee an inclusive work environment. When it comes to finding employment, one’s belonging to a specific ‘group’ does matter. At the same time, employers claim to view diversity and inclusion positively. These findings come from the study “Toward an Inclusive Work Environment!” presented on Thursday, November 25, 2021. In short, the intention is there, yet success seems elusive. How can it be improved?
A research team from Hogeschool Inholland and Vrije Universiteit has investigated over the past two years how institutional bias, despite the good intentions of many employers, contributes to the persistence of unequal opportunities in the Dutch job market within various types of organizations. The report was presented on November 25th.

Inequality in the Job Market

The significance of an inclusive job market is considered crucial by policymakers, employers, and employees. However, aspects such as gender, ethnicity, migration background, faith, sexual orientation, physical or mental disabilities, continue to influence entry and advancement in the Dutch job market. Many employers, consciously or unconsciously, tend to favor individuals who fit the profile of the ‘standard employee’ in practice.

The pursuit of greater inclusion can only lead to true inclusiveness in practice if this standard image is questioned and broadened. This necessitates a structural approach to diversity and inclusion. The catalyst for this process has been the Black Lives Matter movement, which has made structural forms of exclusion more visible. People have become more aware of the structural impact of this bias within organizations and institutions. As a result, inclusion has become a focal point for many employers.

Simultaneously, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic seems to have further exacerbated existing inequalities and mechanisms of exclusion. Many organizations indicate that due to the economic crisis, they are mainly hiring individuals they believe pose less risk – reverting to the norm of the ‘standard employee’. This not only disadvantages individuals who face exclusion but also causes employers to miss out on a significant pool of potential talent.

Two Perspectives Converge

This study focuses on two perspectives: 1) The viewpoint of employers in various industries and types of organizations. Whom do they view as less privileged groups that might face challenges in the job market or on the workplace floor? What is happening within their own organizations in terms of diversity and inclusion, and what isn’t happening, and why is that the case? 2) The perspective of individuals in the Netherlands who do not belong to the category of the standard employee. What are their experiences related to bias and exclusion in the workplace or during job seeking? What message do they want to convey to employers and HR personnel who wish to cultivate a more inclusive organization?

A Combination of Generic and Specific Interventions

It appears that countering institutional bias requires a combination of generic and specific interventions. Generic interventions should focus on changing the existing organizational culture, structure, and conditions for fostering diverse forms of connection among employees within the organization. It’s crucial that this approach is organization-wide. A single, isolated intervention has little impact. Therefore, embedding diversity and inclusion structurally within the organization is important. Additionally, specific interventions should be developed targeting individuals who have less straightforward access to the job market.

Five Paradoxes

The research reveals five paradoxes based on the perspectives of employers and underprivileged individuals in the Netherlands. These five paradoxes are linked to five ‘groups’. They concern Dutch people of color, Islamic Dutch, non-heterosexual Dutch, refugees, and Dutch individuals with disabilities:

  1. Many employers do not recognize bias and exclusion based on color, while Dutch people of color – particularly black Dutch individuals – do experience exclusion based on their color.
  2. While employers present themselves as open to everyone, they argue that visibly displaying religion, especially Islam, legitimizes exclusion. Visibly displaying religion is deemed inconsistent with Dutch and organizational culture.
  3. For LGBTQ+ Dutch individuals, many employers claim that this group is accepted within organizations, yet specific conditions for acceptance seem to exist: the more LGBTQ+ individuals deviate from prevailing heterosexual and cis-gender norms, the less space there appears to be for them within organizations.
  4. Employers express a desire to assist refugees, but often become fixated on the presumed disadvantages and shortcomings of this group, preventing refugees from being fully engaged as employees within the organization.
  5. When it comes to individuals with disabilities, employers state that they have empathy for this group, yet people with disabilities indicate that they are still not seen as full-fledged employees. The focus within the organization tends to be primarily on their disabilities.

Attention, Imagination, In-between Spaces, and Connection

These paradoxes call for specific nuanced approaches to enhance inclusivity. A significant common thread is that organizations should create room for polyphony, allowing the experiences and perspectives of (future) employees to foster connections. Through these connections, an inclusive work environment can be established, where employees from diverse backgrounds feel recognized for their strengths and are provided opportunities for their talent development.

This also implies a focus on an ongoing learning process that considers organizational culture, structure, and interpersonal connections within an organization. Simultaneously, historical backgrounds and the structural embedding of specific biases and exclusion of different groups of underprivileged Dutch individuals must also be addressed.

Horizontal Learning Pathways are effective for collectively understanding the effects of specific interventions. Equally important is to make reflective moments regarding deeply rooted forms of exclusion visible and subject them to discussion. Institutional bias is historically shaped and deeply ingrained in the structure and culture of organizations. Therefore, a sustainable form of reflection through connecting narratives from the field is the only solution for this resilient type of bias.

Step two involves, through story-sharing, delving deeper into the implications of institutional bias and exclusion for different groups of employees. What is the emotional impact when an employee faces structural forms of exclusion?

As the third and final step, collaborative efforts can be directed towards creating an organization that embraces polyphony, a space in which a diversity of perspectives and life experiences are given a dignified place within organizations and in the work process[1].

Organizations Take the Lead

The research reveals that working towards more inclusive work environments is often seen by many employers as a challenging, costly, and time-consuming process. At the same time, it is recognized as important. Despite numerous efforts, desired outcomes remain elusive due to the absence of sustained investments at various levels and the integration of diverse forms of (professional, academic, and experiential) knowledge.

It’s therefore crucial that within organizations, more than the current state, an awareness emerges that the difference can be made within the organizations themselves. This requires collaboration with the government and the target audience, but if organizations take the initiative to cultivate an inclusive environment, there’s much to gain.

And that’s precisely what the Dutch job market needs at this moment: organizations where everyone can be themselves and be valued, and where no talent is lost due to the persistence of institutional bias and exclusion.

The research “Towards an Inclusive Work Environment!” was conducted by: Machteld de Jong, Halleh Ghorashi, Tjitske Lovert, Kay Mars, Eline van Rooij, and Efza Üstüner, and is being presented today. For more information about the research: Machteld de Jong or Halleh Ghorashi.

Below is a recording of the conference “Towards an Inclusive Work Environment!” held on Thursday, November 25, 2021.



[1] In the report ‘Towards an Inclusive Work Environment! Insights from Work and Life Experience and Paradoxes from Practice,’ each paradox is further elaborated in detail to outline how a specific set of interventions can be implemented.

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