Equality, diversity and inclusion have risen to the top of Board agendas in recent years. Companies are keen to showcase the diversity of their workforces, whilst those who are not perceived to have a diverse workforce (for example, all white, male senior leadership teams) become the subject of public controversy.
Many business leaders make the mistake of viewing diversity and inclusion as a charitable endeavour or good PR. In fact, it’s so much more – and to be blunt, if they are championing diversity for the sake of looking or feeling good, then they are not truly championing diversity.
There is an abundance of research proving the benefits of a diverse workforce, demonstrating that teams made up of personnel with different genders, ages, and ethnicities will achieve better results. However, there is so much more to it than these protected characteristics; diversity of life experience and background is just as essential. Diversity in expectation is increasingly becoming more evident in today’s workforce, especially amongst millennials who expect and demand diverse and fair working cultures.
if they are championing diversity for the sake of looking or feeling good, then they are not truly championing diversity.
Research published this year in Harvard Business Review* explored the concept of “cognitive diversity” looking at differences in the way we think and process information. During the study, teams were challenged with problem solving tasks. Unsurprisingly, those that had more cognitive diversity were able to complete the challenges in good time, whereas the teams with similar perspectives took longer or failed to complete the tasks. There is a hard business case for variation and it’s about time HR and Learning and Development functions started practising what they have been preaching.
Humans are programmed to gravitate towards people who think and express themselves in similar ways, which results in like-minded teams that are less diverse. Taking Vista as an example, whose employees are predominantly lawyers and professionals, it would be easy to develop a tendency to look to hire from the pool of Russell Group University alumni, as they are often seen as the more desirable candidates. However, this would create a narrow diversity of experience.
Diversity and equality doesn’t necessarily mean inclusion. A diverse workforce will not bring benefits if some employees are not fully included. You need both aspects to see an increase in productivity, innovation, staff retention, and attracting the best talent.
At Vista, there has been a conscious effort to avoid taking this practise for granted. Whilst policies are purposefully very open, and there is a focus on creating a workplace culture without barriers, the launch of the new British Standard for Diversity and Inclusion sparked an internal review of ways to improve the organisation’s processes, and a desire to be assessed for the standard. Our first-hand experience of truly embedding inclusion into the business strategy has had a significant impact on our colleagues and beyond our organisation and is something we are very proud of.
HR professionals and learning and development practitioners should be able to demonstrate that they ‘walk the talk’. The goals may seem obvious, but consistency is key in these matters, and complacency is not acceptable. Much of what Vista did for diversity and inclusion was fairly informal, but to achieve the standard, formal evidence was required. It was necessary to scrutinise and strengthen the structure that sits around the culture, and continue to monitor this, to ensure consistency and continuous improvement. This also brought opportunities to influence suppliers and clients alike.
Part of the assessment process included the assessor speaking to employees, suppliers and clients, so diversity is measured externally as well as internally. The extensive, but flexible, assessment allows any organisation to prove to clients that they are a consistent and forward-thinking organisation.
An age-old issue for the industry is accurate measurement; it isn’t as easy as counting up numbers and monetary value. A standard like this provides a way of measuring an approach – diversity is in place, productivity is improved, and the business as a whole becomes more successful. The inputs for diversity and inclusion are usually limited amounts of time, whilst getting a structure in place, rather than financial. Another positive outcome of these endeavours is the feedback; this process has provided Vista with external insight into how it can continue to improve.
Taking steps to cement the culture in this way isn’t just external proof of expertise; it’s also a way of showcasing internally the value of HR and learning and development, we have a significant opportunity to lead from the inside.