How can we create a truly diverse workforce?

Hollywood’s Time’s Up campaign and issues around gender pay parity have been topping the news agenda recently putting diversity in the spotlight and creating a climate that is more than ready to see a societal change in attitudes. Creating a diverse workforce that encompasses gender, race, LGBT and cross-cultural equality is therefore more relevant for business leaders and employers than ever before.

Harvard University has published some interesting research into diversity over the last year.  Their aim has been to examine commonly held beliefs and established strategies to uncover some truths about what really works and how organisations can stamp out biased behaviours.

One of the most positive findings of their research and one that employers should take on board, shows that diverse teams perform better, are more creative, have less friction and that teams with a higher than average proportion of women perform disproportionately better.

Modern workplace reality

Despite this positive evidence, there are many discriminatory and damaging behaviours still prevalent in the workplace including:

  • Promotion choices – Where positive or negative bias means the most qualified employee is not appointed chosen for an internal promotion.
  • Recruitment choices – Where positive or negative bias means the most qualified candidate is not appointed chosen for a vacancy.
  • Pay disparity –  Where a particular group is either given preferential rates of pay or lower rates of pay than the rest of the workforce. This is the bias that has recently been uncovered at the BBC, when it was uncovered that male presenters were paid far higher salaries than female presenters.
  • Bullying – Where someone is bullied because they are in a minority group or different in some way to the wider workforce.
  • Being ‘Mommy-Tracked’   – The practice of marginalizing the responsibilities or scope of a role filled by women, when they return from maternity leave
  • Key Client Exclusion –  Where an employee is excluded from involvement with a specific client because of an unqualified bias about them.
  • Downsizing / redundancy choices –  Where re-structuring or redundancy is used as a mask to disguise the termination of an employee because of an unqualified bias about them.
  • Introvert / Extrovert bias – Where an employee is treated differently because their personality is introvert or extrovert (usually introvert)

The reality is that today’s workplace is a world where senior management and directors tend to be white and male and they unconsciously make choices based on their own preconceptions and beliefs – consciously or unconsciously. People from minority groups have found it difficult to break this deadlock even against outside candidates whose chance of success is statistically lower. Depressingly, Harvard’s research showed that if there’s only one woman in your candidate pool when recruiting for a role, there is statistically no chance she’ll be hired.

Does formal training work?

Harvard’s research reveals that simply sending senior management teams and HR specialists on diversity training tends to have a negative effect with managers often unconsciously rebelling against being told ‘what to do”. People going through training are easily taught to answer the questions correctly and see it as a tick box exercise. Within a few days they return back to old behaviours. Despite this, most of the Fortune 500 and almost half of mid-size firms surveyed, used some sort of diversity training.

As a business leader, how can I create a truly diverse workforce?

If training doesn’t work, how can you as a business bring about real change?  Well, there are a variety of easy to implement and low-cost tactics that are far more effective than standard training programmes, where companies place the focus less on ‘control tactics’ and more on engaging managers to consider the diversity issue themselves. These include:

  1. Exposing all managers and decision makers to as much on-the-job contact with women and minority workers as possible. Harvard’s research showed that where managers spent more time with diverse groups, they learned about the attributes and strengths these groups offered. They started to see the advantages of differing perspectives, personalities and experiences and become influencers across the business as well as champions of specific individuals.
  2. Exposing employees to as much diversity as possible through initiatives such as: Cross Business Diversity Task Forces, Mentoring / coaching programmes or Cross Business Project Teams.
  3. Creating “social pressure” through transparent reporting of pro-diversity goals tapping into people’s desire to be seen to be doing the right thing and looking fair-minded.
  4. Defining job vacancies, not just on qualifications and technical skills but on the competencies needed for the role. Teaching employers to avoid using exclusive criteria such as ‘drive’, ‘competitiveness’ or ‘assertiveness’ which may reflect gender or other bias.
  5. Showing flexibility as to how the role should be filled to avoid a narrow definition of suitability for the post.
  6. Using Personal Profile testing early on in the recruitment process can help reduce any unconscious bias created by CV sifting alone. Using personal profile techniques adds in an element that gives managers an objective, non-discriminatory measure reducing the opportunity for unconscious bias to creep in.
  7. Ensuring that there is a diverse board of people interviewing candidates and that group decisions are made based on an agreed list of skills and abilities demonstrated.

Today’s business leaders need to take a long, hard look at their employees and workplace practices and actively work to bring about real change right through from recruitment to internal promotions.  You will achieve better results with any tactic if they are pro-active not remedial. It can be hard to attain credibility for your leadership objectives if you act after the horse has bolted.

A version of this article appeared on the Business Matters website on 28/2/18