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The Risky Business of Engaging with EDI Consultants.

Updated: Oct 16, 2019

EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) consultancy is a rapidly expanding element in

the consultancy sector. Without professional standards, low barriers to market entry

and increasing pressures on organisations to engage with EDI, major risks exist for

the client. However, consultants too take on substantial risks if clients fail to

recognise the significant organisational change required to successfully deliver EDI


Consultancy is big business.

Management consultants have been criticised for poor understanding of clients, ineffectiveness, waste of in-house skills and even flailing in integrity – it has even become a running punchline, just think of Dilbert cartoons. They’ve been described as “anywhere in a broad spectrum from shallow charlatans to modern carriers of economic growth” (1) .

But the UK professional body (Management Consultants Association – MCA) claims that management consultants add an average value of ‘ten times the fees paid’ to their clients. Although some of us are not surprised that the MCA is tooting this horn, the industry’s estimated worth is £54 billion, consisting of nearly 180,000 registered businesses (2) .

Consultancy is big business.

And there is a newly and rapidly expanding addition to the consultancy sphere: equality, diversity and inclusion [EDI] consultants. But there is no professional body, no professional standards, no required training, and no common skillset. The market is unregulated, yet barriers to entry are low.

The route into EDI consultancy

It is unsurprising then, that the data from my research shows most equality, diversity and inclusion consultants initially work as permanent staff embedded within companies. After all, this is the best available training for the job before launching into consultancy. These professionals usually build experience of a broader portfolio that

typically sits in HR. Once their experience is built up, consultants go out on their own, sometimes working with the same clients. Their reputation is built by word of mouth through large informal networks, and their subsequent affiliation with larger EDI service providers potentially adds additional weight behind their ‘value’ claims.

Taking on an unknown consultant is a BIG risk

At a time where tick box EDI measures are increasingly publically scrutinised, clients undertake a significant risk by engaging an unknown consultant to assist with EDI efforts. Research is showing that failed EDI efforts can have negative impact; for example, unconscious bias training can have the opposite effect, and implementation of equality policies without appropriate cultural change work can actually decrease visibility of transgressions.

There is no requirement for these professionals to undergo any training or obtain a minimum set of qualifications. Their experience is frequently within an industry due to their personal career trajectory, and there is no requirement to adhere to a broad cross-sector best practice – nor would the client know this. It is almost entirely dependent on the professionalism and conscientiousness of the consultant, to ensure they are best equipped to deliver the services they offer.

Building experience within one or two major roles as embedded EDI professionals, consultants are very experienced at two to three niche services (stakeholder trust building, presentations to boards, data analysis, etc.) but the breadth of EDI activity is vast. A consultant might be able to support an organisation in a number of efforts: working with key stakeholders to build trust and communication, creation of communication materials, creation of strategy and KPIs, creation of process, provision of technical expertise, case management, audit and review of data, supporting talent recruitment and retention, training, workshops, etc. Finding the right fit between a consultant and the work needed in your company can be tricky.

Consultants shoulder their own fair share of risk.

A good consultant has to work very hard for a successful outcome. My research revealed the inherent paradoxes that consultants must carefully navigate, requiring a whole lot of emotional intelligence and people skills. For example, consultants need to be perceived as both an outsider and insider, professional and personable, adaptable to client need as well as independent and honest (3) . My research has shown that

good consultants end up working with companies on a long term basis as partners because of the investment in the relationships they form. However, this means they rarely have free space in their portfolio to take on new clients. This leaves large parts of the increasingly growing market more likely to engage less experienced or able EDI consultants. Furthermore, clients don’t always know what they’re looking for, but they

want to be seen as having found it – and they want it cheap. The age old “if you pay peanuts you get monkeys” does not necessarily apply, but any good EDI consultant will tell you that EDI work is organizational change management, not a workshop here or there – and this means time, and time is money. (Perversely, finding an expensive consultant will not necessarily bring you the results you need.) Client willingness to learn and change have a big impact on the success of consultancy engagement, and this is particularly difficult in organisational cultural change assignments as is typical of EDI work. My research revealed that clients need to engage, accept feedback, take

responsibility and risks (4) in order for the engagement to be successful. An unwilling or obstructive relationship can bring a big risk to the success of the engagement, the reputation of the consultant and their ability to secure further work. This may make the consultant less likely to be independent and objective, because their income is on the line.

Finally, just one ‘client’ can be a number of stakeholders: those involved in working with the consultant as a primary contact, those involved in helping embed the consultant, those who own the problem and pay the bills, those who will benefit from the interventions but don’t know it, those who know they will benefit but are unknown, etc (5)

1 Armbrüster, 2006

2 Shamsuddin, 2018

3 Stoppelenburg et al, 2013

4 Appelbaum and Steed, 2005

5 Schein (1969)

Ivana Vasic Chalmers, Working in strategic planning, risk and governance in higher education, Ivana works with leadership and the Board to develop frameworks, programs and process to support the strategic plan. A passionate advocate for equality, diversity and inclusion, she has led equality initiatives and teams, published research on the subject and works pro-bono for a start-up focused on improving lives of working parents and their children. Having lived in the Balkans, South Africa, the Middle East and United Kingdom, she is fascinated by the effects of culture on gender parity.


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