Diversity at work connotes the presence of people from diverse backgrounds of gender, caste, class, religion, age, abilities, and interests. However, managing the varying and sometimes conflicting needs and priorities of such groups to enable them to work well together requires unique skills.
While diversity management sounds like what any good leader should do - and what all good leaders have generally been doing, the difference is the added nuance of acknowledging, accepting and valuing multiple identities, needs, working and communication preferences. This is easier said than done.
Nirmala Menon, CEO & founder of Interweave Consulting, a professional diversity consulting organisation, says diversity means differences and differences are the playground of all conflicts at work.
"Diversity management is therefore the intentional and deliberate practice of behaviours that can encourage engagement by ensuring fairness, trust and psychological safety for the team so they can work well together,” she adds.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Menon, also one of the top 50 diversity professionals (as per the Global Diversity List by The Economist), cites some reasons for failure of diversity management in the workplace and tips on how organisations can manage it effectively.
Here are some edited excerpts:
Why is managing diversity important in the workplace?
Acknowledging and managing diversity in an intentional manner sets in motion a series of events that create a virtuous cycle. First and foremost, it is the right thing to do and has strong linkages with human rights issues, so the moral case is strong.
If we are looking at business reasons, a group of diverse people means diverse abilities, ideas and perspectives which make for better and more innovative customer solutions. It would also enable the business to sense and pre-empt the needs of diverse market segments it serves, enabling it to innovate and design products and services that meet those needs for profitable niche markets.
Besides, sustainable and inclusive growth for all sections of our demography is vital for peace and harmony and organisations must play that role as a good corporate citizen.
Additionally, when an organisation has a diverse and inclusive culture, it has its attendant benefits of a positive brand image giving the company the ability to be an employer of choice for attracting and retaining good talent and vital for business growth and success.
What challenges do organisations face when managing diversity in the workplace?
There are multiple reasons why this has been a challenging task for organisations despite the best of intent.
For starters, diversity is not just of gender, age, caste or class but equally of the multiple intersections, making the subject a very complex and dynamic one, needing patient listening and learning which many don’t take the time for. This conviction of purpose on why we need to engage in being inclusive is the base on which other initiatives can be built.
Addressing both conscious and unconscious bias at the individual and systemic level is important, as they influence the talent management practices and culture in the organisation.
Secondly, there is a tendency for most organisations to focus more on diversity rather than on inclusion as diversity is easier to report on. However, diversity is only one side of the coin and equal or higher focus on intentional inclusion is vital if we need to retain the hired diversity. This includes reworking policies and systems to limit the play of unconscious bias at work.
Another common mistake organisations make is to get the best of policies from a market study of best practices and implement the same. Mimicking the blueprint of a different organisation rarely works as planned, as every organisation's agenda must be shaped by its own workforce expectations and objectives as the challenges and requirements vary widely between industries and companies.
All said, this is a tough journey and will need constant monitoring and realigning. This does not mean the company or policy has failed. It is part of the learning curve. Failure is only when a company doesn’t learn from it.
How can organisations effectively manage diversity in the workplace?
The technical aspect of workplace diversity management includes inclusion audits and focus group discussions that determine the baseline of where we are starting from.
Different organisations are going to be at different points on the maturity curve and we need to identify where we are and move it forward. It also helps to get feedback on current culture and practices, insights into biases or barriers, and a sense of the attitudes and sentiments of various groups, managers, and employees in general to help build a roadmap that is specific to that organisation.
Based on this, a customised set of initiatives can be designed and interventions implemented. Like for anything else at work, it must include a strategic plan with key milestones and long-term priorities of the organisation as a whole.
Execution of this plan must include representation from different diverse groups and must be given priority in the organisation. Activities towards each area outlined in the strategy can vary, including changes to physical workspaces and facilities, training and development of individuals from overlooked groups, building and sustaining a safe and harassment-free workplace, education on gender intelligence, racial and religious tolerance, and sensitisation on physiological and psychological differences through many ways, including working in mixed groups.
Governance and oversight are important – the company must ensure that there is a way for employees to be involved and that the strategic vision is being overseen by a management sponsor, and tracked as part of the executive team’s KPIs.
In addition to strong policies and grievance mechanisms, communication is a critical catalyst in diversity management, as it involves calling for an internal movement, where everyone is included and feels responsible.
Management must communicate their commitments and vision for a diverse and inclusive workplace at a company- a wide forum, along with the policies and frameworks as well as the expectations from each employee towards the vision. Forums and employee groups and communities encourage open interpersonal communication, sharing of perspectives, and sensitisation and training bring about a shift in attitudes and mindset.
The most important aspect of diversity management is an open-door culture, where managers listen and respond, addressing potential issues whether they are perceived or real, before they become negative sentiments.
Is diversity backlash real at workplaces? How can organisations/leaders avoid it?
It is true that despite the best of intent, there are difficulties as this is primarily a culture or mindset change process and that is fraught with challenges. With every human being, change meets with resistance, and only a process of conscious rationalisation, supported by an enabling and positive environment helps them transition
Diversity backlash is the reaction of various groups to diversity-related initiatives and activities, as they process this change in different ways. Some may feel threatened, insecure, or unsure, leading to different reactions. In public forums they may support the idea but in reality, may not walk the talk.
For many, the conviction that historically marginalised sections of society are now getting what they believe are undeserved privileges, is an idea that they don’t comprehend. Therefore, helping employees understand the difference between equality and equity it’s an important factor for them being able to appreciate the drivers for special initiatives.
Organisations can face diversity backlash if they do not anticipate this. It is important for leaders to lead from the top, articulating the change, keeping an open door, dealing with resistance positively, to offer everyone the opportunity to confront their fears and work through them.
All the employees, including the ones in dominant and minority groups, need to be allowed to speak openly in case of challenges and to be heard. Keeping a pulse on the sentiment within teams and throughout the workforce can be done through a regular feedback mechanism.
This will help monitor the strategy; honest feedback will allow course correction in the programmes and plans.