DIVERSITY is a hot topic in employment, as it rightly should be. After centuries of the old white man ruling supreme, companies – along with governments and wider society – are starting to understand the value and importance of a diverse work environment.
It’s hard to find a company out there these days that doesn’t have a page on their website dedicated to stating their commitment to diversity; more often than not, accompanied by a stock photo of several overly happy, smiling office workers from any minority group (see below).
But a lot of this is just lip service to diversity; focussing on collecting the data and ticking the right boxes, rather than making a meaningful contribution towards inclusion, says Harvindar Singh, general manager of talent acquisition at Malaysia’s Sunway Berhad.
Speaking at JobStreet.com’s Human Resources Networking conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Thursday, Singh highlighted the important difference between the two ideas of diversity and inclusion.
“Inviting someone to the party, that’s diversity. Asking them to dance, that’s inclusion. You cannot have diversity without inclusion,” Singh said.
“Most organisations bank on diversity because it’s easy to measure. You have statistics that can tell you, yes, you have a very diverse organisation, but your employee satisfaction or your employee engagement surveys [of minority employees] will tell you, ‘I’m not being heard.’”
While most companies have become more conscious about creating diversity over the last decade, many still struggle to make their work environment inclusive – that is, create an atmosphere where people feel respected and valued, with access to the same opportunities as everyone else.
This is a major problem.
No matter how good a company’s diversity policy, without inclusion it can actually be damaging to business.
“You don’t have sincerity when you don’t have inclusion,” Singh told Asian Correspondent.
“There have been cases where high performers in organisations have left because they’ve felt, when looking at the organisation, that ‘I’m a minority, I will never be made a partner.’”
From Singh’s experience, he says many organisations begin diversity and inclusion initiatives, but within a year, many of them have moved on rather than investing the time and energy needed to make sure the measure actually works and employees are feeling a tangible benefit from the programme.
“It has to go deeper,” he urges, otherwise companies risk missing out on such a great opportunity, especially in a culturally diverse country like Malaysia. Without staying the course and ensuring inclusion is achieved, organisations are simply “wasting diversity dollars.”
Harvard Business Review looked into why inclusion has proven so difficult for most organisations to achieve and found strong social norms and the failure to gain support among dominant group members are the main root of the problem.
Christine M. Riordan writes that the majority often present push-back, feeling excluded from diversity and inclusion initiatives. People also, psychologically, have a tendency to gravitate towards people like them, which is regularly reflected in career progression and opportunity.
Leaders are more inclined to promote people who mirror their attitudes and behaviours, leading to what Riordan calls “prototypes for success” that perpetuate bias on the career ladder.
Another harsh reality is that, regardless of the diversity policy, subtle biases continue to exist, often subconsciously in majority-group employees. This can be very difficult to break and leaves minority-group employees open to subtle but insidious discrimination, writes Riordan.
To combat the unwitting hostilities, minority employees often downplay their differences and instead conform, even adopting characteristics of the majority in order to fit in. This negates any benefits a company, or its employees, can get from a diversity programme. After all, there is no real diversity if everyone acts and thinks the same.
Dr Indigo Triplett, author and CEO of 4D Performance, wishes everyone would just stop talking about diversity altogether.
Despite being asked numerous times to speak about diversity at conferences, inclusion is always treated as a secondary, throw-away addition, Triplett explains. “I don’t know why we’re talking about diversity; diversity exists if you have two people in the room.”
Diversity run by statistics with a “tick the box” mentality, no matter how well-intentioned, simply isn’t enough anymore.
“Very often diversity has been counting heads versus making heads count,” said Triplett. Diversity is not about just having a certain number of minority people in the organisation, rather it’s: “Do they have a voice, are they seen, are they heard, are they valued?”