Best for Diversity and Inclusion

IBM speaks to about its award-winning diversity and inclusion policies.



As we look back a year on from the murder of George Floyd and the anti-racist protests around the world that followed, is highlighting the ongoing work of IBM, winner of this year’s Top Employer Award for Diversity and Inclusion.

For IBM diversity and inclusion is closely allied with innovation. Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM until last year, explained it like this: “IBM thinks about diversity the way we think about innovation – both are essential to the success of our business. When we innovate, technology becomes smarter for clients and creates new opportunities for growth. When we incorporate diversity into our business, we create better innovations and outcomes. IBM has embraced diversity, and it gives opportunities for IBMers and our clients to achieve their full potential.”

The company has had a Diversity Council for the past 25 years and in 2016 it changed its name to Inclusion Council. “That reflects the way we see diversity better,” says Deborah. “We look at it at every stage of the journey, from pre-hire to retire. We want to know how we can support our workers and make them feel valued and understand their different needs at different life stages.” In 2021 the Council will become the Employee Experience Council. It includes representatives from the business resource groups through to executive sponsors and the leaders of all IBM’s lines of business.

Deborah says Covid has made diversity and inclusion and the need to listen to and engage with employees at all levels even more important. IBM UK did a big engagement survey in November and has a number of business resource groups – its name for employee network groups – so that it can keep its ear to the ground. They cover everything from gender to LGBT+. The most recent group is for carers. That was set up just over a year and a half ago and, says Deborah, “could not have been more timely”.

The business resource groups come together at an annual X-BRG event, last year focused on carers, which highlights intersectional issues.

A flexible culture

Flexible working, a culture based on trusting that people generally come to work to do a good job and an emphasis on output over when, where and how work gets done has also helped support people with caring responsibilities through the crisis, backed by an awareness of mental wellbeing issues – 2% of the workforce are Mental Health First Aiders and a Work From Home pledge which includes a commitment to be ‘family sensitive’.

In the UK every employee was enabled to work from home from the start of the pandemic and working parents were offered a sabbatical on half pay from June 7th to September 5th 2020 to cover the school holidays.

When it comes to gender, like many tech companies IBM UK faces enormous challenges which it is addressing in various ways. Twenty per cent of its executive population is female; 26% of its workforce is female and 18% of those in technical roles are women. It is addressing this at all levels. It has a strong commitment to Early Professional Graduate hiring being split 50:50 by gender and was the first branch of IBM to recognise the impact of the #MeToo programme.

It implemented Harassment and Bullying Training for the whole HR community both virtually and in person. The programme was then adapted for all UK managers and employees with a completion rate of 93%. The UK approach was adopted as the global model and over 2019 was rolled out to more than 117 countries. Deborah adds that there is zero tolerance of bullying and that the grievance process can be anonymised. She has personally made sure that bullies have been fired.

IBM also has a Women’s Development programme, Elevate +, to prepare senior women for promotion to executive roles. The aims are to increase the visibility of participants, broaden their strategic networks and provide them with the skills needed to maximise promotion opportunities. This includes coaching and mentoring.

In 2017 IBM introduced an anonymous Diversity and Inclusion census when it recognised that it had no benchmark data outside of gender and age and needed a baseline against which to measure progress. The census showed how many employees had caring responsibilities, including 9% who care for people with complex needs and those with responsibilities for both children and elderly relatives. That led to the setting up of a carers business resource group and to supportive policies for carers, including a carers passport, which provides carers and their line managers with information about how employee’ caring responsibilities impact their work. 

To get the message out to employees about the support available, IBM held events about being a carer which addressed those who had temporary caring responsibilities or were looking after someone who didn’t live with them who might not view themselves as a carer or might not like the label. The resource group provides a forum for discussion and for sharing advice and information, for instance, employees have shared their experiences of social services across the UK and Ireland. “It’s a brilliant directory of support and it has made a huge difference to people,” says Deborah. People have also been able to share their experiences of caring during the pandemic.


IBM also has a large neurodiverse community globally and IBM UK has been working with the Autistic Society to virtually onboard people to do work experience in its laboratories during the pandemic and has adapted its virtual tools to support neurodiverse workers as a result of feedback. Deborah says there is a lot of work being done to understand how technology can support neurodiverse people at work and in the recruitment process. For instance, neurodiverse people are given interview questions beforehand and are invited in before the interview so that the process is clear and not unsettling. Assessments are also done on a one to one basis rather than at an assessment centre. In addition, IBM provides line manager training to explain, for instance, the importance of not giving ambiguous or complex instructions.

IBM addresses ‘hidden disabilities’ across the board. After a comment made to Deborah by a woman with terminal cancer around two years ago, she set up a hidden disabilities event to get people talking about everything from dyslexia to terminal conditions. This led to employees and visitors being able to choose to wear sunflower lanyards that point this out – these are kept in a bowl on the reception desk. Deborah says this has been well received.

Black Lives Matter has been a huge issue for IBM, given it is a US company. Its Emb(race) charter, launched in 2020, is all about educating employees to be upstanders rather than bystanders – something that IBM UK had also worked on following #MeToo – and to make sure they have difficult conversations about difference. “That has been enormous,” says Deborah.

Like many other organisations, IBM has seen a lot of activity around race at work with around 400 vignettes about BAME people’s experiences being posted. In the UK there is an emphasis on allyship and conscious inclusion based on an awareness of bias and an understanding of people’s experience. Between 2019 and 2020 its BAME intake increased from 6% to 13% and it has just launched a new BAME Talent programme called Trailblazer. IBM also focused one of its mental health webinars during the pandemic on BAME employees.

Social mobility

IBM also puts a big emphasis on social mobility, for instance, through an expansion of its apprenticeship scheme, which is much broader than it used to be when it was mainly for young people. There are now 180 apprentices at IBM UK. “It’s been hugely successful and the apprentices are spectacular. They are diverse and passionate,” she says. She adds that the scheme has also helped to get more women into tech careers.

In addition, IBM has been reaching beyond the usual applicant pool to young people who are not in full-time education or training through its Ignite scheme. It aims to tackle youth unemployment through the provision of high-quality vocational training and work experience. Deborah adds that social mobility work requires first of all an understanding of the different barriers people might be facing.

All of IBM’s work on diversity and inclusion has brought more employee engagement. Its annual Employee Engagement Index score has increased by 8% over the last three years, with IBM UK scoring above the global average.

Deborah, who was at IBM from 2010 to early 2021, has been a huge advocate for inclusion within the company, responding to changing needs. IBM has recently appointed a disability specialist and a person to run its BAME talent programme. Her work will continue.

Her LinkedIn profile describes her as “a passionate ally and champion of the underrepresented, and an advocate for the importance of inclusion in transforming culture”. She says simply: “I have had the best job in the business.”

*This profile and a case study features in the forthcoming’s Best Practice Report, which will be published in June and will be free to download from our site.

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