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Diversity in the workplace: everything you need to know

Wouldn't it be great to live in a world where everyone treats everyone else the same and all that was important was someone's talent, unique skills, values and individual personality when it came to hiring? There would no longer be a need for diversity laws, diversity programmes, diversity planning or diversity training. Mutual respect and equal treatment would abound at every level.

Sadly, the words 'conscious evolution' within the human experience are not ones we hear very often. If they were, there might be no racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, lookism, homophobia, transphobia and religious prejudices, or at least we would be well on the way to eliminating them without needing to be prompted, or legally coerced to do so.

Diversity in the true sense of the word means celebrating all of our differences but more often than not nowadays, it's become more about widening our differences, especially in the form of group-identity politics that tends to divide rather than unite. But maybe the latter is a kind of evolutionary step that is necessary to achieving the former, growing pains if you will. Only time will tell.  

The workplace is a microcosm of the macrocosm - the part reflecting the whole - and the wider changes in society in terms of diversity are being mirrored there.

Organisations can no longer get away with 'saying' they have a culture of diversity because they've ticked all of the boxes relating to legal requirements, they must, to paraphrase the famous quote about Caesar's wife, also 'be seen' to have a culture of diversity, or better still, just build a genuine one. 

This is not only vital when it comes to recruitment and retention of top talent but it's becoming increasingly important to customers - especially the younger generations - who  tend to choose products and services from businesses that display a clear 'social justice conscience'. It's no exaggeration to say that all it could take is one viral negative post on social media about your business and it's sayonara overnight to your reputation, sales and profits. The internet might forgive eventually but it never forgets and missteps remain out there in all their glory literally forever. And if you're not diverse enough, it won't take long for the world to find out.

Diversity therefore is more than a legal and moral issue for any business today. It's an imperative. Leaders can view it in two ways, as a 'stick' for them to conform, or as the 'carrot' of opportunity to flourish and grow. Better yet, why not embrace diversity as a completely new way of doing business. You can't go wrong with treating people right.

'Strength in diversity'

People are on the move like never before and the workforce has changed and continues to change all the time. Women were the first diversifiers. EU membership and mass migration have changed the landscape further. LGBTQ people no longer have to hide their gender identities and are free to be who they are, and to utilise their unique talents, and globalisation combined with technology have brought, and are still bringing about the final frontier - the global workspace. 

The benefits of having a diverse workforce are already well documented; better recruitment, retention, employee satisfaction, competitiveness and productivity. Or as the mantra in Western establishment political circles goes: "Diversity is our strength". 
  •  Innovation: the fact that people from across the diversity spectrum have different ways of problem solving, and different views, experiences and skills is a boon to promoting out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to innovation. A disabled team member will for instance have more ideas for how a business could offer certain products or services that an able-bodied person might not think of in a million years because they're not approaching it from that perspective. It's why intelligence agencies recruit 'black hat' hackers and turns them into 'white hats'
  • Creativity: Aside from innovation, diverse teams are best when it comes to letting a business know how it can market a product or service to a wider customer base. If a business is for instance using the wrong strategy by only targeting one or two demographics when it could make some recommended adjustments to appeal to a wider customer base.  A business will better understand its consumers if their employees come from across the same spectrum. Customers of a different culture who see that a business understands what they want and employs someone they feel comfortable dealing with, will choose that business
  • Talent pools: When a business makes diversity part of its long-term strategy it widens its talent pool and pipeline, making the world it's oyster in terms of recruiting. The more diverse the workforce, the more diverse people it will attract. Minority groups like to feel they are going to be in a 'safe environment' where they can be themselves and express who they are without the fear of 'being different' than everyone else there

Diversity in the workplace

Not all rainbows and unicorns?

There may be more rainbows on display in the 21st century, but diversity, especially in a species that is not yet fully evolved, has not completed the tableau with enough puppies and unicorns. As with anything, especially involving major change, diversity brings opportunities but also challenges, almost all of which fall into the 'human nature' basket if not managed properly.

  • Conflict: Here you're not only dealing with people of different races, genders, backgrounds, abilities and creeds but also people who have the same fears and desires as the next person. Power struggles can happen, resentments can develop, and seemingly insurmountable disagreements can hinder productivity and create a bad working atmosphere.
  • Red Tape: Having a diverse workforce can create more tasks in terms of human resources from dealing with grievances - when they do come up - to accommodating  the different wants and needs of employees, be it religious holidays, dietary restrictions, structural changes, written codes of conduct, drawing up politically-correct language guidelines, dress codes etc. Restrictions can also add to a bad atmosphere when one group of employees is seen as being 'favoured' above another.
  • Training: In addition to normal L&D, more diverse businesses must invest heavily in diversity programmes if they are to benefit from their own unique 'melting pot'. Staff will need to confront any prejudices or biases - conscious or unconscious - about other employee groups or persons and to learn to deal with issues that arise. Cliques are inevitable in a diverse workplace but they can lead to hostility when people are divided along racial, gender or other minority lines. It's understandable that like-minded people are drawn to each other, even in homogenous workforces, this happens. But it should be clear to employees that what are important are business goals and that they all need to be on the same page when it comes to that.

Getting diversity right

No. The answer is not to disseminate the writings of Gandhi and hope for the best. But it can be done.

First, know the law:

The Equality Act 2010 legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society. It replaced previous anti-discrimination laws with a single Act, making the law easier to understand and strengthening protection in some situations. It sets out the different ways in which it’s unlawful to treat someone.

It is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of:

  • Age
  • Sexual orientation and being or becoming a transsexual person. Employers should always have an appointed LGB&T champion at senior manager level, sometimes in HR or OR
  • Being married or in a civil partnership
  • Being pregnant or on maternity leave
  • Disability. Employers should also make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to help disabled employees and job-applicants such as Braille, audio, extra time to complete tests, wheelchair access
  • Race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
  • Religion, belief or lack of religion/belief
  • Sex
  • Direct discrimination - treating someone with a protected characteristic less favourably than others
  • Indirect discrimination - putting rules or arrangements in place that apply to everyone, but that put someone with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage

 And then?

Well, diversity doesn't 'just happen'. It's something that has to be built and nurtured.

  • Recognise the opportunities and the challenges and make a plan to deal with both based on customer demographics and business objectives.
  • Impart these to all employees in clear manner so that everyone is aligned with the goal in the same way as a business would do if its workforce was homogenous. Aim to create a team spirit along the lines 'we're all in this together'. Sometimes people can put aside their differences for the greater good.
  • Create an atmosphere of trust between employees themselves and between them and management. Diverse employees need to feel they can open up when they need to.  Learn to understand subtle tensions and try to defuse them before they fester and blow up. Make sure your door is always open
  • Understand and communicate with your workforce, know who they are and in the case of those with more cultural diverse backgrounds, learn about where they're coming from in terms of their worldview and perspectives, and their culture. 
  • Don't view diversity programmes and training as a drag or a distraction. They might take employees away from their tasks when managers think they should just be getting on with the job but sometimes you have to spend money or time or both to get the benefits. Diversity workshops can at the very least help clear the air in case of an issue and at best promote understanding and acceptance
  • An organisation's culture will be the area that probably sees the biggest changes when a workforce becomes more diverse. Organisations will need to be more flexible in this regard in the case of a one-size-fits-all culture. Culture should be 'moving with the times' anyway so rigidity is always a bad idea.
  • Form a diversity council or committee with representatives from various groups that can spell out for management what the issues are. This sends a message that your diverse workforce matters. Some minority employees might never go to a manager themselves to speak up. It might not be their culture to do so. Witness some companies in Japan where employees think it's disrespectful to go home before their boss, even if they've done all of their work for the day
  • Monitor business performance in tandem with policy changes related to diversity. How many customers lost or gained in particular demographics and who has been assigned to those demographics
  • Treat everyone fairly kind of goes without saying 

 A new Babel

The Tower of Babel, according to religious tests, centred around a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood. Everyone spoke a single language and migrating eastward, came to the land of Shinar. There they agreed to build a city and a tower "tall enough to reach heaven". Supposedly, this angered God and he confounded their speech so that they could no longer understand each other and he scattered them around the world.

We've been divided ever since by culture and distance.

It has taken many thousands of years and distance is just a nuisance now rather than a lifetime commitment. It may yet take a few decades more in terms of total acceptance of diversity but humanity is coming together slowly to build a new Tower of Babel. This time it is being built by utilising people's differences rather than their sameness.  Even though they still won't all speak the same language or have the same culture, race or religion, the goal will be the same... or so we can hope.
Equality, diversity and inclusion resources