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#ChamberBreakers Season 1, Article 1: Diversity & Inclusion Efforts

A different workplace: Diversity and inclusion in the age of crisis

Understanding the complexity of staff identities and combating the disadvantage and discrimination many experience in work is central to how companies build successful teams. But management strategies are evolving fast. What do progressive executives need to learn to understand them?

Pandemic. Economic and geopolitical fracture. The re-emergence of highly motivated grass roots activism. This is the global context for the modern workplace. The area has already undergone a sea-change in staff expectation and management practice in recent years. Today, global events amplify the sense of urgency.

Frontline consensus

Recent studies show how far worker-attitudes and management practices have come.

McKinsey & Co’s May 2020 Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters1 report, showed that the modern work experience is far less satisfactory for staff than one might imagine. While overall sentiment on diversity was "52 percent positive and 31 percent negative, sentiment on inclusion was markedly worse, at only 29 percent positive and 61 percent negative," the consulting firm said. "Hiring diverse talent isn’t enough - it’s the workplace experience that shapes whether people remain and thrive."

Research from Gartner found equally dramatic results when looking at the impact of diversity and inclusion on business outcomes. "Through 2022, 75% of organizations with frontline decision-making teams reflecting a diverse and inclusive culture will exceed their financial targets," Gartner said. "And gender-diverse and inclusive teams outperformed gender-homogeneous, less inclusive teams by 50%, on average"2.

"Bringing diversity into the workforce is effective at a business level," the consultancy continued. "The difference in employee performance between nondiverse and diverse organizations is 12%, with similar improvements in intent to stay factors."

Reversal of fortunes?

While these new statistics confirm an old argument, as businesses struggle to deal with the impact of COVID-19, some D&I and CSR professionals fear that advances made in the past decade will slip - as executives ignore the effects of underrepresentation and discrimination in their workforce in order to focus on other issues.

Particular insight comes from Tricia Driver, founder of D&I specialist firm A New Normal, and Suki Sandhu, Stonewall Ambassador and founding partner of recruitment company, Audeliss.

Taking part in the Yahoo! Finance UK and Verizon Business #ChamberBreakers podcast series, they spoke of the challenges facing diversity and inclusion at work as the world’s crises unfold – and the opportunities they present for those who can think past it.

Staff really do want change

"Some employers just see COVID as an opportunity to frankly, treat people really badly and put them in situations where they feel either physically unsafe or emotionally unsafe at work in the context that they don't really have many options," says Driver. "All of those companies will reap what they are sowing now. People will not forget."

"Some of the most impactful things that I've seen over the last few weeks are people sharing either things that their employers have or haven't done within the context of George Floyd and the pandemic. People will notice that going forward."

Sandhu agrees. "Those that already have extensive diversity and inclusivity and allied CSR programmes see in the statistics the disproportionate impact [of COVID-19] on ethnic minority communities…" 

Quoting the UK Office of National Statistics[3], he said: "When black people are one point nine times more likely to die [in the UK] than white people, and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are one point eight times more likely to die. And Indians around one point six times more likely, there's a reason why people are angry and frustrated with what's happening."

Pandemic as hidden opportunity

Driver doesn’t think the cause is lost, however. "Employers have an opportunity here," she says. "Some are using it to open up and have really honest conversations with their people, and share that leadership in an authentic way. [They are being] transparent about their approach, about their values and about what they believe in around this."

"What people are looking for from companies - especially around the death of George Floyd and the recent spike in transphobic content being peddled by some high profile people in the media - people are looking for companies to make a clear statement to say ‘we think that what we're seeing here is racism’, or ‘we think that what we're seeing here is transphobia’. And ‘that is not okay in our business and it will never be okay in our business’."

Starting at square one

How can executives begin to do this when many D&I programmes are in their infancy? According to Sandhu, the concept of ‘intersectionality’ is the guiding light by which identities can be made clearer in the workplace – giving staff and management alike the chance to address race, class, gender and sexual orientation, and the overlapping discrimination or disadvantage they often elicit.

"My intersectionality matters to me. It will matter for your diverse employees. So it needs to matter to you," Sandhu says. "Minority communities can face additional barriers in the workplace. But when you have more than one diverse characteristic, those barriers can multiply.

"A queer black woman faces a triple glass ceiling… Think about the discrimination or withholding of opportunity that one person may face because they are all three.

To be effective, executives need to think beyond silos of minority status, says Sandhu. "White men also have layers of identity," he says. "They are working class. Being privately educated is part of an identity as well. [Intersectionality] doesn't apply just to one community. The more that we can learn about each other, the more empathy you build; the more understanding, the more change that you'll see."

If intersectionality is the new way to perceive potential discrimination – and the means to combat it - what should be the driving principles for both executives and the strategies they develop? For Driver, it evolves from the individual employer out to company structures and programmes. 

Listen, don’t speak 

"First and foremost, listen to the people and the groups that you are saying that you want to support," says Driver. "And listen, without any thought of how any of this stuff impacts you… Don't dispute what they're saying, and don't doubt what they're telling you."

"You need to be guided by the people within those groups as to what it is that they want you to do."

Driver believes there is a limit to how far businesses should push minority groups to explain themselves, however.

"It's really important to listen without forcing people to educate you," she continues "I follow a lot of folk from the trans community on Twitter. I follow a lot of activists within the Black Lives Matter movement. It's important to hear what those people are saying because they are saying it when they want to, and where they want to, and how they want to."

"[You can’t go] to somebody and say, ‘come on now, I need you as a transgender person to educate me as a cisgender person about your life and your experiences’. That's not fair on the people in those groups. Go and do the groundwork, do the learning. Don't expect other people to educate you.


"The second piece is about helping people who are in a position of privilege to really understand that they have an opportunity to use that privilege in a really positive way. So to really act as allies step up and speak up for people, because it's always going to be harder for someone who is directly impacted by something in that moment to say something."

Like intersectionality, the term ‘allyship’ is a relatively new concept making its way into management dictionaries. It is the process by which people with privilege and power work to develop empathy towards marginalized groups, their challenges and issues. In business, its aim is to create a work culture in which marginalized groups feel valued and are therefore more effective, just as the Gartner research indicates.

"Giving everybody that collective and shared responsibility is really important," says Driver. 

New principles

Doing the groundwork. Making sure that everybody understands what's expected of them at work. Giving them the context about how to use their privilege in a positive way. Making sure that minorities know they have the right to talk to managers and allies in their organization. These are the guiding principles of a work culture that will make diversity surveys, inclusivity programmes and communication channels work.

For Sandhu, though, they are not set in stone. "We have to remember that diversity and inclusion is not easy," he says. "If you think about leadership and management in general, there is not a science to people. Let's forget about identity first and foremost. Let's just think about personalities and lifestyles… They all need a different type of management and coaching and performance objective setting, and different ways of giving feedback. Because people respond differently in different scenarios."

But this is no time to slow up. "The final thought that I’ll leave you with, given what's happening on the Black Lives Matter movement, is that this is a huge moral moment for change," he says. "I think people have waited long enough for change in business. If you're not going to do it now, when are you going to do it? No more excuses. The key thing is to take action."