At a glance
“When I go into an organisation to talk about diversity, I ask people: ‘Hands up who likes cats, and hands up who likes dogs?’ Instantly, what that does is to create difference.
I say, ‘I like both. What do we have in common? We all like animals.’ Diversity in organisations is about embracing and respecting our differences and then looking for common ground.”
This is Jill Noble, a human resources (HR) expert and founder of Pivotal HR, who has helped many organisations to challenge unconscious bias or “thoughtless thinking” – particularly when it comes to recruitment and promotion – that leads to a lack of diversity.
“People are often not aware of the impact of their thinking, which can lead to decisions that preclude people – or include the same kind of people – and they make the same mistakes again and again,” Noble says.
Being drawn to people who look, sound and behave like ourselves is a natural human trait that has to be consciously confronted. That is because the consequences of failing to address these in-built biases are quite considerable.
The Diversity Council Australia’s (DCA) 2019 biannual survey, the Inclusion@work Index, shows that three out of four Australians support workplaces that include people from different socio-economic backgrounds, are gender mixed, include a range of ethnicities, ages, sexual orientations, people with disability or those who are neurodiverse.
It is not simply that employees are happier working in diverse teams.
Adrian Baillargeon, a teamwork expert and keynote speaker on the subject, says that as diverse teams are more accepting of others from backgrounds unlike their own, they are more open to different ways of doing things.
“They gain new perspectives, they experience higher levels of engagement and they are more innovative,” says Baillargeon.
Another advantage, supported by a growing body of data, is that diversity equals profit.
A 2020 McKinsey report on public companies in the UK, the US, Canada and Latin America has found that those with greater ethnic, racial and gender diversity in management teams performed better financially.
Other studies have shown that diverse teams are simply smarter, as they often challenge entrenched ways of thinking and sharpen perceptions.
Where does responsibility lie for building diversity in organisations? Is it with individuals, is it with organisations, or is it both?
Baillargeon says that organisational culture starts with the individual. “An organisation can say diversity and inclusion are core values, but if the individuals who work there do not believe it, or embrace it, then it doesn’t matter what the organisation says. It’s action that is going to drive results.”
According to recruitment platform Indeed’s recent report, Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace: Fostering an Environment for All Employees to Thrive, 80 per cent of Australians say it is important for them to work in a company that promotes diversity and inclusion, but only 57 per cent describe their workplace as diverse.
Jay Munro, senior country marketing manager, Australia and NZ at Indeed, says the challenge is that diversity has been seen as a tick box that has not translated into action.
Australian organisations have tended to be reactive rather than proactive on diversity and inclusion, monitoring what is happening around the world and then stepping in when they feel confident to do so.
Another challenge has been that HR departments have not had a true seat at the table in terms of leadership in organisations, Munro says.
“When it comes to driving change, it really needs to come from the top and be something that the leadership believes in and speaks about.
“We need HR to be seen not just as a delivery function, but also as a strategic function to empower leaders to start talking about diversity and inclusion,” he says.
Finance and insurance services have been leading the way in workplace diversity, with employees most likely to report that their organisation is taking action on diversity and inclusion in the DCA 2019 survey.
CPA Library resource
How to build a diverse team
Don’t try and do it yourself. It’s good practice to go outside the organisation to get someone who can look in and give you that unbiased perspective.
Building diversity isn’t a one-time action; it’s a progression that, once established, needs to evolve and be continually reviewed and reinforced by leaders. It’s an ongoing investment that will continue to pay off, as diverse teams will see your business grow and flourish.
The people with power to make diversity happen are those middle managers who can influence up and down.
Encourage conversations that are often challenging. These aren’t blaming or judgemental conversations, such as “you are so sexist”, they are exploratory. “ Help me understand what you are thinking, what has led you to think that?” You have to get the little things right before you can tackle the big issues.
It starts with conversations. There is no “black and white” answer. Some organisations set quotas in terms of gender, or more broadly, which helps to raise awareness. They may back this up with training on diversity and inclusion.
The benefits of diversity need to be reinforced by leaders, including creating a safe work environment, where people feel they can be themselves, and having employees reflect on what that means.
Take the Black Lives Matter movement. Some organisations came out right away and said, “We stand for this”, but others were confused and less clear about what they could do better, which is good because then discussion can begin.