How to encourage Diversity & Inclusion in your workplace

Are you actively encouraging diversity throughout your business? We look at some of the key issues, including language use, educating colleagues and enabling a diverse talent pipeline.

The Diverseness of Diversity

diversity in the workplace

Diversity in the workplace can mean different things to different people depending on their perspective, whether it’s gender, ethnicity, age, religion, culture, disability or sexual orientation.

This list, though short in terms of the number of words it contains, would need volumes to pierce the sheer layer of complexities that go along with ensuring an organisation’s diversity and inclusion policies help to reap the benefits and boost its employer brand. To say it is a daunting task for any organisation would be an understatement, as many, after duly ticking the diversity box, find themselves at a loss as to how to make the best of such potential.

For Sonia Bate, Managing Director of EDIT Development – a global leadership development consultancy working with partners in 18 countries – helping clients resolve these issues is not just a job, but a real passion, and this is no mere platitude. It’s patently obvious.

With her unique perspective from both sides of the fence, having spent many years as a senior leader in the financial sector, Sonia and her 50-strong team focus on helping people to be the best they can individually, whilst accounting for their diverse backgrounds and experiences to benefit the organisation holistically.

“Unfortunately diversity in many businesses is still seen only really as a female issue but actually diversity in all of its wonderful forms – thinking style, operating style, social style, all of those things – creates richer organisations and better performing businesses,” Sonia said. “I’m passionate about the whole diversity piece full stop, not just gender diversity.”

Melting pot

EDIT Development, which Sonia set up six years ago, works with three levels of business; global corporations, smaller entrepreneurial-sized companies and governments and councils.

“Within our wide client base, we have quite a diverse melting pot, working with African, Danish, American and UK businesses, right through to a local council in Yorkshire” she added.

This global reach brings up a host of new challenges given that the team is not confined to one country where laws on equality and diversity would at least provide solid back-up for changes that need to be made. Sonia sees the global challenge as working with several layers, starting with the individual, then the company’s culture and lastly the country’s culture.

“In some of those countries where you may be working for instance, homosexuality might still be illegal, or men might need to sign an authorisation for a woman to be able to apply for a promotion. Things like religion and cultural norms become a big part of it,” she said. For instance on a recent assignment in Dubai, Sonia worked with a group of expats and a team of successful Emirati women such as doctors and engineers in full Muslim Abaya, which was “a whole different layer of complexity”.

But the bottom line, she added, was that though there are several layers to deal with, “you’re dealing with number one, an individual’s values and preferences and that doesn’t matter what country or what company they work for. It all starts with the individual, how they’ve been socialised, their values, their belief mechanism, their view of the world.”

A rose by any other name

One issue EDIT Development helps companies with is the language used in recruitment.

Sonia said typically in engineering, a vacancy might contain words deemed as masculine, e.g. ‘assertive’ or ‘driven’. “So we work with companies to try to neutralise job advert language, making it more diverse and attractive to males and females who may have more of a nurturing style” she added.

The opposite language to the traditional terminology, Sonia said, would use words like “collaborative, inclusive, developmental, flexible, agile” which can be more attractive generally to a candidate with a more nurturing working style.

According to Sonia, for 50 years what’s been valued and rewarded is strong assertive leadership in many sectors and businesses. But today’s organisations operate in workplaces which are very culturally diverse and the throwback styles of leadership, whether masculine or feminine, are not going to help businesses move forward.

“I think it’s very dangerous for us to get hung up on demographic diversity only,” said Sonia. Although it was important to have a level playing field in order to have policies and processes in place to drive equality, she added, “just because you’ve got diversity, doesn’t mean you have an engaged, inclusive workforce. Organisations need to work on their environment and culture at the same time.”

Although she tells clients that she and her team do not have all the answers, Sonia claims what is more important is to help management and leadership to ask the right questions to drive organisational change. An organisation should also not be afraid of the answers it might receive. Whatever language is used to describe diversity or equality, it is less important than asking the questions that need to be asked so that action can be taken, she said. “The information then gives us a bit of a litmus test as to where people sit.”

The three big blockers

“To succeed at diversity and inclusion” Sonia said, “leadership must absolutely be on-board or else it’s like “pushing sand up a hill. Hearts and minds must both engage.”

“If you don’t have leaders in organisations who are genuinely committed to making a change then the reality is change happens, but slowly and not always culturally” she added. “I could go out and recruit a very demographically diverse group of people who all think the same, but that’s not going to add value to my company because, despite having a demographic tick, we all just think and behave the same way.”

“Difference for me cannot stop at demographic diversity. It’s about thinking, communication and social styles and how you fuse those various styles to make it stronger. That’s where companies miss a trick.”

Another blocker to succeeding with diversity, Sonia said, was the nature of diversity itself in that it often prevented leaders from tackling certain behaviours within an organisation such as underperformance.

“Behaviours should be tackled on what people are not delivering, not on the basis of black, white, gay or straight. I think people are afraid to say X is underperforming. X is gay, I can’t possibly have a conversation with him or her,” Sonia said.

“We get afraid of diversity. People skirt around the real issues and conversations. If I’m being a really good leader, I’m not blind to the fact you’ve got differences, I celebrate and leverage them, but I’m not going to manage you by exception. We need to manage by engagement and curiosity, being interested in our people.”

A third barrier, Sonia said were certain managers’ fixed ideas on how a job can be delivered, for example some firms may insist they can’t possibly have an employee (male or female) working less than four days because their clients wouldn’t like it, she said. “How do we help those companies see that two people working part time can service that client just as well as one person working full time?” asks Sonia.

Putting agility into practice

Sonia realised the need for this type of flexibility during her leadership role in the financial services sector. “Instinctively I got the best out of people when I was flexible,” she said, citing as an example the choice of having one full-time employee or “two great” people who want to work part time.

“I don’t want to lose either of them so how can I merge this? For me it’s instinctive. I don’t want to lose the talent so therefore how can I be flexible around it?” she added.

In her earlier career, Sonia said it was actually difficult to attract male workers into the predominantly female frontline financial retail sector. “So I suppose I experienced it differently. I wanted to recruit more men. I couldn’t find them.” Sonia explained the further her career progressed, the fewer women there were and when she became very senior she looked around and there were no other women at the table.

The master key to future work

Sonia says that ‘resilience’ as a capability is critical in the future of work. “When it comes to the future of work – male, female, black, white, gay, straight, with or without disability – being resilient and agile is a key leadership behaviour we will need to develop” she said.

Today’s environment, she continued, is at a place where the workforce is multi-generational, and ageing, and for the first time there are sixteen year olds and seventy year olds all in the same workspace. “Technology is having a big impact on the way people work. How do we equip people and help them use technology to their advantage to be better leaders, better managers?”

“When we’re recruiting, how are we doing so?Are we recruiting people in a way that helps bring richness into the organisation – new ideas, new thinking – or are we recruiting people who look, sound and feel the same as the people we’ve had for the last 30 years?”

Sonia said the ageing workforce would be a phenomenal loss of experience and knowledge to the UK market over the next ten years, as they retire. This, added to the changes technology would bring such as artificial intelligence and robotics, means that we need to be change agile and thinking agile in the way we problem solve in business. Diversity of thinking enables this richness and agility.

In this respect, some of Sonia’s clients are engaging in reverse mentoring where someone aged 55 or 60 is mentoring a 25-year-old, who in turn is mentoring them. “Reverse mentoring is really a good way of creating more inclusive environments, sharing and keeping knowledge, enabling the upscaling of older people in the workforce. If more companies were doing this it would be a really positive thing,” she said.

Pipelining and the diversity gap

According to Sonia, recruiters with an eye on a client’s future needs in this ever-changing work environment, should challenge hiring managers more on how flexible a job position could actually be. She suggests asking whether roles really need to be office based, or full time as opposed to job-shared. In this way a client could avail of two diverse talents for the price of one so to speak.

A second suggestion would involve educating recruiters and hiring managers on bias and unconscious bias. “That is definitely something that’s needed” said Sonia.

“A third thing recruiters can do is work in partnership; enable the company to know where it’s going and not just fill the immediate need. Recruiters tend to be focused on filling the vacancy rather than working with the company to say ‘this may be the vacancy you have now but what will the role requirements be in two years time?’ What do we really need to be recruiting to help with pipelining as you move forward?”

Sonia believes that helping management to build pipelines for potential talent, especially further down the line, is a crucial step in bridging diversity at more senior levels. Going deeper in identifying high potentials and future leaders is key to increasing diversity in the future.

“Organisations are very good at building succession plans for senior leaders but often seem worse at plans for people much lower down in the organisation,” she said. “That helps with diverse pipelines because if you support people with a succession plan in their twenties, you’re more likely to pull through a greater gender balance for example as you move up the pyramid.”

Full circle

Inevitably, any conversation about diversity is bound to lead back to gender, as it must, given that women account for near enough half the global population and by sheer numbers alone their voices will be heard above other groups fighting their own corners.

But Sonia doesn’t believe the business environment is entirely to blame for the lack of career progression for some women.

“It can’t only sit on the shoulders of corporates. We have got to look at education and wider socialisation, of family, and on how women and men co-parent. It has to sit on where we are as a society,” she said.

“There are definitely socialisation factors that mean women and girls sometimes make decisions about their careers that don’t necessarily support growth and progression.” These include failing to go for promotion due to looking ahead to starting a family and deciding not to try for new positions in case they start a family.

“What we can do is help people see that actually you can do the bigger roles on different terms. More visible role models of senior women, successful part-time working women, women having families, And, not just women, but also men as active parents and taking paternity leave and that being ok, because that’s also an issue within organisations.”

Sonia confirms it’s an issue for men too and culturally it would be career suicide for some men in some companies to take paternity leave. Or, she said, parents should not be afraid to bring in a parent or a nanny or good home help to accelerate their careers, if this is what they want without fear of judgements.

“The media can generate unrealistic ideas of superwomen or supermen. Have it all, be the top lawyer, the perfect spouse, the perfect parent, the perfect everything. Who the hell can do that?”

Sonia suggests women find what works for them without having to forego career progression. “What we really need to help people to be, is what their own unique voice is and have the career they want and be new role models for the next generation, male and female,” she said.

“For me, if you have role models – and I’ve been very blessed to have a very strong role model – it can turn the light on for you in believing you can go and access that and I consider that really important.”

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