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What IBM can teach us about diversity and inclusion at work

As part of its focus on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), Rullion recently spoke to Deborah Richards, IBM’s Head of Diversity and Inclusion for UK and Ireland, about diversity and inclusion at work.

IBM is world-renowned for its forward-thinking approaches to EDI and is one of the companies on the Rullion Inclusive Top 50 UK Employers Initiative.

The company certainly has a strong heritage in the subject, as Deborah explains: “IBM was formed 107 years ago, which often surprises people, as tech companies are not thought of as old. We have a fantastic reputation for inclusion in our business, going back decades. For example, we were employing disabled people in 1914, and we fought against the old rulings on race employment throughout the last century, to ensure we provided a more inclusive workplace.

“We’re currently campaigning against the Texas Bathroom Bill - our Global HR Director and Global Diversity Director recently lobbied against it. It goes against the principals and values of our company,” says Deborah.

IBM certainly does not waiver on its principals. “We make it very clear in all our communication that we operate on a level playing field, and this approach is global” explains Deborah. “For example, we offer same sex partner benefits to all our employees who are eligible for them, in those countries where we can. By standing up for inclusion and tolerance, we will change minds and influence others.

“Our policies have to be global,” she continues. “We employ over 380,000 people in 117 countries. How can a company that size not be diverse? We welcome everybody and encourage diversity of thought - for that you have to have diversity in the workforce. IBM is a global business and technology is moving so fast, that we bring diverse teams together from across the world to develop and innovate”.

Deborah has worked for IBM for over a decade, and prior to that she was a management consultant. Working in the tech industry, she admits there are challenges: “Tech still has a long way to go to attract more women into the industry, our CEO is a woman, and this makes her an industry role model - we are keen to help communicate the joys of STEM subjects to girls. IBM has volunteers working with schools and colleges all over the UK with the aim of communicating how interesting and creative the tech industry is.”

Deborah says, “Times are definitely changing - but there is still a long way to go,” she admits.

“The younger generation can teach us a lot. When you take a job, you enter into a psychological contract with your employer and young people are very different to how they were a few generations ago. They want a company that is ethical, transparent and reflects the society they know. They want the freedom and opportunity to develop as people.

“They also have more confidence to tell you what they want and want to be part of the decision making, which I think is brilliant. It’s important that we listen to and learn from them, while also respecting the older generations. We have five generations working in IBM. Seeing the mutual respect is gratifying, everyone can learn from someone and we ensure all ages are upskilled and trained to keep up with the changing technologies. It’s important to remember to stop and listen, in order to embrace the learnings from a diverse group of colleagues. This is how companies can become more creative – and even more diverse.”

This diversity is, in itself, what drives the EDI process at IBM. “We don't dictate too much,” says Deborah. “We give people autonomy and responsibility. All the companies within IBM have a Diversity Council. That council chooses one or two key objectives each year, based on their own employee research, diversity surveys etc., and the wider group supports them and helps them deliver on those objectives. By giving them the choice we are ensuring it is relevant to them. We have a global scorecard - you have to set targets - but we allow flexibility in our monitoring.”

As a technology company, IBM is constantly innovating around the issues of inclusion and wellbeing. Its AI robot, Watson (named after IBM’s founder), is managing simultaneous translation from speech to text to help with language barriers as well assisting deaf and hard of hearing colleagues.

Watson is also helping people with Asperger’s understand facial nuances that reveal things such as irony or jokes, in order to help facilitate an easier working environment. The company’s Internet of Things technology is helping older communities’ carers keep track of their activities. “We want to transform healthcare in the world - and we want to transform attitudes towards diversity and inclusion.” says Deborah.

The overall aim, then, is quite simply the wellbeing of everyone. “It is,” she agrees. “We aim to earn the trust and increase the wellbeing of our employees on a daily basis, by asking: ‘What can we do to make your work life more comfortable, and more inclusive?’.

“For example, and every single IBM employee has access to Mindfulness on Monday sessions. We have ongoing reverse mentoring so that managers are mentored by someone with different experiences to them - as you can never be entirely empathetic unless you have walked in someone else’s shoes. Our aim is for everyone to be completely honest about who they are. We want all employees to bring their whole selves to work. That is when they will be happiest and most productive. That is the aim.

“Ultimately, my fantasy is for the business not to need a diversity leader,” Deborah smiles. “Sadly, it won’t happen in this lifetime - but we’re making progress all the time.”

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