Making diversity work in the workplace

What are the challenges that organisations are facing as they try to progress from diversity to inclusion? Illustrations by Jessica Meyrick

Companies with employees of different genders, ages and cultures outperform those with a more uniform mix. Here’s how your workplace can accommodate diversity better.

If you’ve ever had one of those uh-oh moments, when you realise that despite a well-documented workplace diversity policy your corporate brochure or conference panel looks like the latest photoshoot for a middle-aged-white-man’s clothing range, then you might be interested in Rent-A-Minority. It’s an online service designed to provide workplaces with the right minority for specific occasions, such as an award night or important meeting. All minorities have been vetted to ensure they are not too dark, too radical or too feminist.

This is, of course, a satirical suggestion. The Rent-A-Minority website was designed to shock and raise awareness, but not everyone got it.

When Arwa Mahdawi, a New York-based brand strategist and writer, launched the site in early 2016 she was inundated with emails from minorities wanting to sign up to make some money, as well as some genuine enquiries from big businesses.

“Some didn’t realise it was a joke because it’s scarily close to the tokenism that diversity receives in the workplace,” Mahdawi says in her 2016 TEDxHamburg talk, “The surprising solution to workplace diversity”.

Mahdawi describes herself as a “three-fer” – three minorities for the price of one, because she is brown, female and gay. 

“When companies hire me, they get to tick three diversity boxes.”

No one wants to be a diversity hire. However, ticking the boxes can seem easier than the long, hard work of tackling some of humanity’s most intractable problems related to privilege and power, the haves and have-nots.

The 2017 PwC Global Diversity and Inclusion Benchmarking Survey, which involved 810 respondents from more than 25 different industries, found that while 87 per cent said “diversity is a stated value or priority for my organisation”, 42 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that “diversity is a barrier to progression at my organisation”.

What, then, are the challenges that organisations face as they try to progress from diversity to inclusion? What’s needed to make the mix work and deliver on the promise of better customer representation, talent attraction and innovation? 

Inclusive leadership is critical to diversity

Getting leaders to truly engage with inclusion is the most common challenge, globally and locally, according to both the PwC survey and the 2016 Inclusion and Diversity Research Report of the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI). How do you get leaders to acknowledge their own unconscious bias and understand the potential business benefits of doing so?

This is tricky territory. People may be scared to say what they really think, lest they be judged as racist or sexist. Diversity and inclusion rhetoric can also make members of high-status groups, commonly white males, feel threatened, reveals research published in the January 2016 Journal of Experimental Psychology

Organisational psychologist Lucinda Hewitson, founder and chief executive of Adelaide-based Diversity Inclusion, conducts inclusive leadership training courses. Leaders attend with their teams, so everyone that has the chance to talk together, honestly, about the behaviours that include and exclude others. 

“We let them know what to expect – the objective of the workshop, which is to create more inclusive and effective teams – and we assure them they are not being singled out,” says Hewitson.

Meetings are frequently identified as a situation where people can feel excluded, with regards to who gets heard and who gets credit for ideas. Casual conversations that take place between people who have similar interests, such as sport, but where key decisions often get made, are also cited. Then there’s sponsorship, where a leader puts forward people he or she likes, or is similar to, for an opportunity.

“We make sure participants walk out with an action plan that we review with them several weeks later,” says Hewitson. “You don’t want diversity training to simply be an interesting psychology lesson, without changing everyday behaviour.” 

Accommodating different needs

When it comes to the job of keeping teams happy and managing workflows and schedules, where do you draw the line in accommodating the needs of different groups? 

Nathalie Lynton, director at Shared and Halved Consulting, an HR and shared services consultancy, says it doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive.

“The accommodations I’ve made have been very easy,” she says. 

“I have booked out rooms to be used for prayer rooms and ensured they were kept in an appropriate manner. I make special arrangements for people who are observing Ramadan as their energy can wane, so we often shift their hours over the fasting period.”

Lynton and her team normalise diversity by bringing as many cultural awareness days into the business vernacular as they can, and accommodating kosher and halal dietary needs at work events. 

“In my 20 years of experience I’ve never drawn the line. If someone asks for something it’s for a good reason, and you trust them so it’s going to be a yes,” says Lynton.

Not everyone feels that way. One participant in the AHRI survey commented: “There is a silent majority that can feel left out when there is too much emphasis placed on minority groups ... and this can have a more detrimental effect on productivity and job satisfaction than trying to accommodate the few.”

Flexible work arrangements go a long way towards catering for a whole range of needs and situations, whether that’s the need for prayer breaks, child care or taking leave for religious or cultural days. It doesn’t need to be hard, says Lisa Annese, chief executive of Diversity Council Australia (DCA), the peak body for diversity and inclusion in the workplace. 

“You can accommodate employees of different faiths as you would accommodate staff with other requirements,” she says.

Flexible work policies can accommodate prayer times by allowing employees to make up time by starting earlier or finishing later. “Most people are reasonable [and] most adjustments are inexpensive,” says Annese.

However, for flexibility to truly work, she believes it should be offered on a team rather than an individual basis. “Otherwise there will always be someone who feels resentful for picking up the slack, or marginalised because they don’t get any special privileges.” 

In its 2017 report Future-Flex: Mainstreaming flexibility by team design, the DCA recommends that employees and managers work together to come up with team-based flexibility solutions. It also stipulates broadening the definition of flexibility, so it encompasses a variety of reasons, such as personal development or community involvement, and that it be made available for all demographic groups across all types of jobs and at all levels.

“When people realise it’s for everyone and there’s something in it for them, it works,” says Annese. 

Professional Development: Management essentials - managing a diverse team. Learn how to manage a diverse team by understanding key diversity issues and setting ground rules.

Sometimes there is no single work policy that can balance the needs of business with those of the worker. 

Marc Bennie is national Indigenous programs manager for AccorHotels, which has been committed to Indigenous employment since 2001. Of AccorHotels’ employees around Australia, 590 – about 5 per cent – are Indigenous. Their strong connection to family and country means their need for leave to attend ceremonies or funerals can be significant. 

“If someone needs to attend a funeral or National Sorry Day, it might take them a day to get there, several days for the ceremony, then travel time back again. In some areas, this could happen five to six times a year,” says Bennie. 

“We don’t have a policy for this kind of leave but treat it on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “Our cultural awareness training encourages managers to first and foremost get to know and understand our Indigenous employees and their culture.” 

The solution at Kakadu, where the AccorHotels business is partly owned by the local community, is to have ceremonies take place at the hotel. 

AccorHotels’ long-standing Indigenous employment programs are paying off in several ways. Earlier this year, it appointed its first female Indigenous general manager, Kristy Stanton, who started with the business just seven years earlier. That promotion broke a double glass ceiling. 

“Success breeds success,” says Bennie. “Now our Indigenous employees can see that it is possible to climb the ladder.”

Richard Hurst, the CPA Australia relationship manager for Indigenous Accountants Australia, agrees that different needs are best met by building relationships first. 

For Hurst, a descendant of the Gamilaroi people of north-western New South Wales, good communication is the key to setting and meeting the expectations of the job, the needs of the employer, and determining a reasonable adjustment. 

“We are a very relationship-driven people; we value face-to-face communication much more than via electronic means,” he says.

Hurst works with employers to help them create inclusive workplaces for Indigenous people; that can include implementing a reconciliation action plan (RAP).

“This represents a commitment to supporting Indigenous employees,” says Hurst. “Many RAPs include special provisions for employees who might need to return to remote areas at short notice for community or family events.”  

More than 200 Indigenous Australians are employed at National Australia Bank (NAB), and its RAP is just one of a number of programs that are designed to overcome barriers to diversity. The bank’s support for diversity among its employees doesn’t stop there. Its African-Australian Inclusion Program (AAIP) offers African-Australians six months of corporate work experience. More than 230 people have graduated from the program since its inception in 2009, with in excess of three-quarters finding employment in their chosen fields, many with NAB. 

On the other side of the Tasman, the Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) offers Maori cadetships and is a principal partner with TupuToa, the Maori and Pasifika Corporate Pathways Program. 

Diversity in Asia – a culture clash? 

Adapting diversity and inclusion initiatives to the local context is a key to success, but many diversity managers struggle when trying to engage their Asian colleagues and local leaders, says Tina Arcilla, senior manager, Diversity & Inclusion in Asia Network, at Community Business, Hong Kong. 

Research by Community Business shows that in many Asian markets, diversity and inclusion are often seen as Western concepts, sometimes at odds with local cultural norms. For example, respect for hierarchy is so strong in many cultures in Asia that it can undermine the principles of inclusion, where everyone is encouraged to share their opinions. 

In addition, issues that typically top a global diversity agenda, such as gender, may not be such a high priority in Asia, Community Business’s 2015 Examining Diversity & Inclusion from an Asian Perspective report found. Instead, issues that are significant for being included or excluded from career opportunities include education, language and overseas experience. People competent in English and possessing overseas experience often have a distinct advantage over local candidates who do not. 

“The nature of the issues related to diversity and inclusion and the way they show up are quite different, so it’s really important for organisations to take the time to facilitate discussion on the ground to make sure their strategies are locally relevant,” says Arcilla. 

Social unrest in the world at large may be making diversity and inclusion in the workplace more difficult than ever before. However, the belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to business survival remains strong. 

“Diversity is the new Darwinism,” says Mahdawi. “Evolve or go extinct.” 

Employers and managers will need to develop increasingly sophisticated skills to navigate the complexities and sensitivities of making diversity the new normal. 

Including people of different faiths

  • Set aside a room that people can use for prayer, meditation or reflection. You can call it a quiet room or reflection room rather than a prayer room, as this is more inclusive for non-religious people. 
  • Allow staff to use annual leave, carers’ leave or other types of personal paid or unpaid leave for religious holidays that fall outside those covered by public holidays. 
  • Consider a floating cultural holiday, where an employee can take culturally significant days off by trading an official public holiday.
  • Organise social events that cater for different food preferences and are not only based on drinking alcohol, as this can exclude people who choose not to drink for religious or health reasons. 
  • Be aware of boundaries related to touch, clothing and eye contact when organising team-building activities. 
Source: Diversity Council of Australia

Tips for supporting Indigenous employees

  • Educate yourself about Indigenous culture and history.
  • Take the time to build a relationship with the person first, getting to know the person and his or her life situation. 
  • Start conversations with questions such as where is your family from, where is your country, who is your mob, rather than where do you live or what do you do. 
  • Provide opportunities for Indigenous employees to have input and be heard.
  • Organise a buddy system with other Indigenous people in the organisation, and mentors – internal or external.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate cultural days, and allow time off during NAIDOC Week (from the first to the second Sunday in July).
Sources: Trevor Satour of Building Indigenous Capability, Marc Bennie, AccorHotels. Richard Hurst, Indigenous Accountants Australia 

Exploring diversity and inclusion in Asian businesses

Is diversity and inclusion a Western concept? In 2015, when Hong Kong’s Community Business surveyed 257 middle managers across five Asian nations, 61 per cent of managers in Singapore and Japan strongly agreed or agreed that diversity is a Western idea. There was 58 per cent agreement in China; 55 per cent in Hong Kong; and 43 per cent in India.

For an Asian perspective on diversity and inclusion, Community Business says to lead with concepts of insider-outsider groups and unconscious bias.

Questions may include: 

  • What kind of people in this organisation tend to be successful?
  • What characteristics and behaviours seem to be rewarded in this environment? 
  • What can get in the way of team members working together?
  • What factors work against people in the promotion process?
Source: Examining Diversity & Inclusion from an Asian Perspective, 2015, Community Business, Hong Kong

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