Inclusive Workplace: True Inclusion Starts with Diversity of Thought

Very recently, along with some of my SR Group colleagues, I was lucky enough to attend an event run by the Diversity Council Australia (DCA) on "Diversity of Thought". HSBC hosted the event, adding valuable insight as a leader in Diversity and Inclusion. Below are my reflections on the discussion, as well as thoughts on how Corporate Australia can promote inclusive work environments, and foster a tolerant, supportive community.

The DCA runs a packed calendar of events, to promote discussion and awareness of Diversity and Inclusion issues. The panellists, a diverse group themselves, were Dr Graeme Russell, internationally-renowned writer, researcher, and Diversity consultant; Dai Le, former refugee, journalist, and founder of Diversity consultancy DAWN; Anabelle Williams OAM, Legal Counsel for the Australian Olympic Committee and Paralympic Gold Medallist; and Noel McNamara, Chief Risk Officer at HSBC.

The opinions of the panellists were evidently shaped by different experiences, but a common theme was clear: Diversity, as an abstract concept, and a consideration for HR teams globally, is only the starting point for Inclusion. A second, more complex message, was that "creating", or engineering Diversity will only result in an inclusive environment which already promotes Diversity of Thought.

The Context

Unconscious Bias and Measuring Diversity

HSBC's Head of Talent, Kylie McGavin, commented that moving from a hiring market dominated by unconscious bias, to data-led diversity-by-design, is not the solution. Diversity data is likely to be at the heart of "measuring" how diverse a given workforce is, and addressing imbalances across gender, accessibility, sexual orientation, age, and ethnicity.

Reflecting on the Diversity of any business can be a great starting point. Anabelle Williams asked a powerful question: if 1 in 4 Australians identify as disabled, who among us regularly comes across these people at work? This is a troubling picture of "inclusive" working environments in Australia. Raising awareness of this problem promotes a conversation on whether we think this is acceptable, and could lead to improvements. Some recent research by Virgin Media seems to support this, and has prompted them to develop a support service in response.

Information resulting from a Diversity survey can also be used ineffectively. For example: promoting based on addressing an under-representation of women in senior positions. This can bring balance to an imbalanced situation, but could have the wider impact of holding back otherwise deserving candidates, and devaluing the achievements of such women. Further, we are not looking closely enough at the detail without considering age, ethnicity or background.

So, if not achieved by reactively promoting Diversity internally, where does Inclusion start?

Let's consider the "what", "why" and "how" of Diversity of Thought...

What?

Defining Diversity of Thought

Imagine if key commercial decisions (within reason) were made as a result of inclusive discussion. Imagine, instead of one demographic group, or one common personality type, it was a range of viewpoints which effected change, or set policy. This is Diversity of Thought: the more organic encouragement of a range of opinions, dispositions and demographic groups' input into the corporate environment. Diversity of Thought isn't something you can create easily, or even tangibly; it's a constant consideration.

An interesting problem is whether Diversity of Thought can be created, or whether it should merely be encouraged, regardless of how diverse or inclusive any given workplace is (perceived to be). What can a business do to begin redressing imbalances in this area?

Why?

Diversity of Thought > Forced Diversity

Creating a more "diverse" workforce has several obvious benefits; some altruistic and some commercial. This is an important distinction, as while some benefits are enjoyed by both the employer and the employee, it helps to bear in mind that decisions to improve diversity are generally made "top-down" by Senior Management. A cynic might suggest that it is impossible to view any Diversity decisions as truly altruistic, as the commercial benefits are too great to ignore.

Take ethnicity for example: it is generally cheaper to hire new-comers to the Australian market; those "untested" candidates we hear about in the recruitment industry. It is also great PR for the business to "measure" this behaviour, and advertise it to the labour market. Customers are more likely to align with a forward-thinking business, and more talent attracted to a Diversity-conscious employer. A pragmatist might still point out that the net effect is a more diverse workforce, and a step towards workplace Inclusion.

This is still an inherently reactive approach to Inclusion however. This may be unavoidable, but does not, in itself, improve inclusivity. Dai Le pointed out that Diversity of Thought looks beyond the obvious, often physical, manifestations of Diversity (ethnicity and gender are prime examples), and takes into account more nuanced traits. Our workplaces will be more inclusive if we encourage discussions, corporate decision-making, and hiring patterns, with Diversity of Thought as its starting point.

How?

i. Bringing your "whole self" to work

Noel McNamara talked about HSBC’s constant efforts to promote the importance of the "whole self" at work. Employees are discouraged from feeling as though you need to act a certain way at work, or mask a side to their personality, via positive and negative reinforcement. Promoting Inclusion is rewarded, while behaviour jeopardising Inclusion is identified, de-constructed, and ultimately reprimanded in serious cases.

Corporate norms and a certain degree of structure in the workplace can promote positive outcomes: profitability, efficiency, and transparency being examples. It is difficult to picture anarchy as an effective business model. However, in trusting its employees, empowering them to be themselves, including when to disagree and challenge, a business can stand to increase become more profitable and efficient, and ensure a transparent environment. As Sir Richard Branson once said, if you "look after your staff, they'll look after your customers".

Ultimately, if people feel comfortable being themselves at work, whether "out", able to observe religious commitments, encouraged to work flexibly, or even to be able to express themselves, the likely outcome is a general uplift in job satisfaction. Uber's new Chief Brand Officer, Bozoma Saint John, is a great example of how an apparent Diversity vacuum, and less-than-inclusive environment, can be improved by someone able to apply a credible, empathetic approach to systemic problems.

The removal of stigma surrounding certain behaviours will surely also create much-needed flexibility and balance. In a world where the Gig Economy is prevailing, why is flexible working still a luxury to most people? Why not remove the barriers to hiring workers with disabilities, and pre-empt their accessibility issues? Why not empower women, by making it practical for men to provide parental support? Why not support same-sex couples, so they might also more easily take advantage of these statutory entitlements? Why not take the risk that people from different cultures may not get along instantly, and empower their managers to keep things running smoothly?

The truth in these cases, is that stigmas, when it counts, often lead us to the easy decision, rather than the right one.

ii.Diverse Hiring

While subject to similar risks as fulfilling a Diversity quota as above, building a diverse workforce can be a positive step towards Inclusion.

There are arguably exceptions, but singling out particular groups whose applications to accept or reject is generally not enough. More and more businesses are adopting "blind recruitment", to remove prejudice from the process. Perhaps this will go a way to an eventual solution. In any case, implementing measures to ensure that the applicants met in any one process are a diverse class of people, almost certainly ensures a pipeline of people capable of creating an inclusive environment. There is a lot of work to do in this area.

The Problem with Profit

It is clearly difficult to guarantee Diversity of Thought, where the more successful and more senior business stakeholders make broad-reaching commercial decisions. Whether Diversity and Inclusion are genuine concerns for a business, or a powerful, timely PR tool, the assurance of either will surely never win out against profit. Perhaps the best we can hope for is for Corporate Australia to treat all people with respect and dignity, in good faith, and focus on measuring results before and after making changes in this direction.

The conversation is certainly developing, and this, for now, is the best we can do for our businesses, and for ourselves.