If you want to change the way your organisation approaches diversity the most important thing you can do is start talking about it. Talk to your colleagues, talk to experts, and put it on the agenda for meetings. But most importantly start talking to a diverse range of people so you can build your understanding and end the awkwardness. Start asking questions and listening to the answers. Because one of the biggest barriers to diversity in the workplace is that people are reluctant to talk about it.
Business in the Community's 2015 Race at Work Report found that less than 50% of employees felt that their colleagues were comfortable talking about race at work—much less than when talking about age and gender. And if people can’t even start a conversation about race, then nothing can change.
"When it’s clear that your intention is to learn and understand,
talking about race is possible, positive, and progressive.
Don’t let language create the biggest barrier of all—silence."
Murray Raisbeck, Audit Partner for KPMG, said, “Leadership on race doesn’t mean having to be an expert—it just means accepting that someone else’s reality might be different to yours. It’s easy to get preoccupied with ‘getting it right’. But when it’s clear that your intention is to learn and understand, talking about race is possible, positive, and progressive. Don’t let language create the biggest barrier of all—silence.”
Understanding difference can be a challenge, and it's really normal to feel uncomfortable about things we don't understand, don’t know about, or haven’t experienced. But this can be overcome by talking about it. Starting a conversation is the most important step in beginning to connect with and understand people who are different to ourselves.
“People have problems talking about disability and that’s one of the
biggest barriers there is to getting employed."
Dr Alice Menard
Speaking on the BBC World Service’s In the Balance program on disability hiring, Dr Alice Menard said, “People have problems talking about disability and that’s one of the biggest barriers there is to getting employed. If your employer—or your potential employer—can’t talk to you about the ways in which you might need to work, then it’s going to be quite difficult for them to do anything about it.”
According to the International Labour Organisation, people with disabilities make up one billion, or 15 percent, of the world’s population. About 80 per cent are of working age, but their access to work is frequently denied. In the UK, disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as typically-abled people.
On In the Balance, Randy Lewis, former exec of Walgreens Boots Alliance, said, we need to look past the disability and see the person. Lewis ran an extensive disability hiring campaign at Walgreens. They set a target for 1/3 of their 600 recruits had to be disabled. They set aside their traditional hiring practices and asked disability organisations and networks to provide them with employees on an intern to hire basis. They ended up hiring 40-50% disabled people in that initial recruitment round, and within four years disabled people became 10% of their entire workforce, without any extra cost and without any compromise in performance standards.
“Everybody would say this made us better,” Lewis said. “It made us better managers… and we didn’t sacrifice any business objectives, and in doing so it became the best work of our lives.” As a result of the program, he said, “Safety was better, retention was better, absenteeism was better… and performance was the same, the engagement across the board was better.” Importantly, he said, “Everything we did for people with disabilities, helped everybody—every policy change, every adjustment we made, made it better for everybody.”
This is the key point: Increasing diversity in the workplace is not just about making special adjustments for people who are different. It is about improving the working lives of ALL employees, and increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the whole organisation.
And the place to start is with a conversation. Get more comfortable talking about diversity in the workplace, whether that is about race, disability, sexuality, or any other form of perceived “difference”.
MONIQUE'S TOP TIPS:
Set an intention to learn and improve.
Try connecting with people you wouldn’t normally. Ask questions and allow yourself to be surprised.
Be conscious of how you refer to people in conversation. Avoid stereotyped descriptors such as ‘fat’, ‘Asian’, or ‘black’, which can be heavily loaded with negative meaning. See if you can find other ways to refer to them. Note how this affects your own perception.
If we can start from a place of humility, acknowledging that other people might know more than us, and that it is ok to be wrong, then we can make enormous improvements.