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Leadership and Management

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Keep inclusivity on the agenda

As we face a new raft of challenges and disruption in 2021, we explore why businesses must not let a commitment to diversity and inclusion be overshadowed.

Last updated: 08 Feb 2021 7 min read

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As organisations grapple with uncertainty caused by Covid-19 and Brexit, there’s a risk that diversity and inclusion (D&I) may slip down the list of priorities. And yet, the pandemic has served to further highlight the discrepancies in job security and workplace support that some diverse groups face.

A recent report by The Resolution Foundation found that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are at a disproportionate risk of losing their jobs when the government’s furlough scheme ends. This is largely due to the fact that 8% of the UK’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic workers are employed in the struggling hospitality sector, compared with just 5% of White British workers.

At the same time, a recent survey by McKinsey found that diverse groups – including women, LGBTQ+ employees, people from ethnically diverse backgrounds, but also working parents – are struggling most with the impact Covid-19 has had on their mental health, work-life balance, workplace health and safety and job opportunities.

Rather than treating this aspect of business as an option, wise organisations will actively maintain their commitment to D&I throughout this uncertain period; work done now will strengthen your workplace not just in the short term, but far into the future.

The benefits of successfully embedding D&I into the brand, culture and ethos of a business are manifold. As James Adeleke, CEO of not-for-profit organisation Generation Success, says: “Inclusion makes a workplace a non-toxic place to be. When everyone is encouraged to bring themselves to work, the workplace is a happier place to be and subsequently a more productive place to be.”

He cites a Harvard Business Review study, which found companies with above-average total diversity have 19 percentage points higher innovation revenues and 9 percentage points higher EBIT [earnings before interest and taxes] margins, on average.

Also, consumers and jobseekers will examine companies’ attitudes towards diversity and inclusion. According to research by Accenture, 70% of millennial consumers, for example, are likely to choose one brand over another where a commitment to diversity and inclusion is clear. Eleanor Howie, CEO of Valiant Lingerie, which makes post-surgery bras, agrees millennials value inclusion.

“It’s of the utmost importance to us that we build an inclusive environment where every individual is valued and their contribution heard,” says Howie. “The current state of inclusion and diversity in fashion often seems focused on visibility – the inclusion of diverse individuals on runways, magazines and in branding.

“It’s certainly positive and exciting to see greater representation [but] visibility alone is not enough to end inequality, exclusion and racism. It’s vital that efforts are made to prioritise diversity across all aspects of the fashion industry, including chief executives, magazine editors, business leaders and so on.”

So what else do businesses need to know about D&I?

Understand why D&I is crucial

Jane Farrell, CEO and co-founder of D&I specialist EW (Equality Works) Group, says: “There has been a real paradigm shift in the last year in how companies see diversity and inclusion. It is now critical in relation to businesses being seen as up to date, efficient, effective and at the cutting edge of best practice. We are now so far away from a compliance-led approach to diversity and inclusion; it’s integral to business strategy.

“It is about doing some deep thinking about what diversity and inclusion really means to a company. It is how it is going to help the company grow, be more successful, more proud, be admired or be the market leader”Jane Farrell, Equality Works

“If a legal firm bids for work and says they provide the best legal advice, they are now likely to be asked about whether they are able to harness a diverse team to help with their clients’ challenges. They are likely to be quizzed about how many of their partners are Black or Asian or women because it is accepted that different perspectives and different views on legal advice are important.”

Farrell has seen businesses lose large contracts because they are not credibly the best when they have little diversity at the top levels, including socio-economic diversity, and are unable to talk about D&I with confidence and competence.

“A CEO told me recently: ‘I expect people to be able to talk about what they have done to promote diversity and inclusion, and if they can’t, it would feel like employing someone who has never considered budgets or used a computer,’” she adds.

Define inclusivity

Suki Sandhu OBE, founder and CEO of executive search firm Audeliss and public participation charity INvolve, acknowledges that the two components of D&I are interlinked, but stresses that organisations must recognise their differences.

“A diverse company,” he says, “is one that propels individuals forward, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability or sexual orientation – actively providing them with opportunities to excel.

“However, diverse companies aren’t necessarily inclusive ones. When we talk about inclusivity, we’re referring to an organisation’s culture and to what extent it allows diverse talent to thrive. Employees must feel accepted and valued within the workplace, with a clear sense of belonging and shared values with others.”

Tazie Taysom, commercial director at ARTIQ, an LGBTQ+ led organisation with a 50/50 male/female board, has been inclusive from inception.

“Fundamentally, we have a clear mission, to bring economic viability to the cultural sector,” says Taysom. “To do this, we need a team working and thriving together. We recruit from all backgrounds based on key skills that the company needs to achieve its vision.

“We take an active role in diversifying our artist roster by running specific campaigns. Our hiring managers take unconscious bias training and we have established a D&I committee who oversee and ensure company-wide buy-in to our policies.”

Avoid tokenism

Tokenism is a pitfall for companies failing to grasp D&I. Adeleke explains: “It can make an employee feel drained because they are the only person representing their sex or race. By hiring people of diverse backgrounds just for statistics, they can feel alienated and like they are fighting to drive diversity and inclusion on their own.”

So how can you combat this? Farrell says businesses must address D&I as seriously as they would approach finance, strategy, and health and safety.

“It is about doing some deep thinking about what diversity and inclusion really means to a company and asking why it needs to be addressed,” she says. “It is not therefore simply a knee-jerk reaction to a single event or campaign, but rather how it is going to help the company grow, be more successful, more proud, be admired or be the market leader.”

While D&I are positives in terms of social justice, adds Farrell, the business case is also important.

“If a company was tempted to do 10 workshops on unconscious bias and nothing else, we would advise them not to do that. We would encourage them to think through a whole range of interventions. Unconscious bias training is extremely effective, but not on its own.”

Analyse your situation

Once you have understood your objectives, Farrell suggests scrutinising data concerning ethnicity, sex, age and disability.

“Doing a forensic analysis of policies, processes and behaviours is also important,” says Farrell. “It is important to be open about what is being done well, and what isn’t, as then a credible plan can be forged.

“Looking at this data gives us a strong platform to move forward and make practical recommendations. This might mean there is work done on inclusive leadership or a forensic analysis of how performance management, recruitment and selection is carried out. There might also be parallel pieces of work around running management training programmes.”

Take practical action

Once you have identified areas of concern, carry out a targeted qualitative review. Laura Durrant, a consultant at the people intelligence firm Howlett Brown, says: “The data can only take you so far, and every business needs to drill down into the experience of staff to understand unique individual experiences and where there may be problems.

“Identify potentially misleading assumptions and debunk them. For example, that tone from the top is enough, or that any issues relate to just a few bad apples in your business. Test your hypotheses rather than blindly relying on them.”

Crucially, it is key to commit to D&I as a fundamental business value, she stresses.

“Without inclusivity, diverse staff will not be attracted to a business and, if recruited, will not stay and/or will not progress. That defeats the point of diversity and will undermine the aims of leaders.”

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Leadership and Management