Workplace Diversity: It’s not a choice between diversity and ability

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The last week has seen the subject of workplace diversity hit the headlines again. Sunday Morning Live ran a debate entitled “Should recruitment be based on diversity, rather than ability?” and Lady Justice Hale, the only woman in the supreme court, spoke out at the start of the legal year about the lack of diversity in the higher levels of the judiciary.

Whenever this subject is in the news, it elicits emotional responses. Phrases such as “positive discrimination” are bandied around with disdain. People talk about equality having gone too far, and how they don’t want to lose out on a job to somebody less qualified because the employer was trying to fill some kind of ‘quota’. It is said that lack of diversity is not down to discrimination, but merely because the best people tend to come from a small pool of white British heterosexual able-bodied middle-class men.

The title of the Sunday Morning Live debate was completely wrong, and nobody is arguing for diversity over ability. However, the truth is that people are already being selected by criteria other than their knowledge and skills.

Research from the Department for Work and Pensions found that if you have an African or Asian sounding surname you need to send approximately twice as many job applications as those with a traditionally English name even to get an interview.

In 2012 the All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community uncovered discrimination based on religious dress, especially towards women who wear the hijab (headscarf). Those who removed their hijab for interview were more successful than similarly qualified women who did not.

Estimates suggest a million disabled people who want to work are unemployed and in research published in July 2013 disabled people cited employers’ attitudes as a bigger barrier to work than transport.

Workplaces which do not embrace diversity are limiting the pool of talent on which they are able to draw and the quality of people that they bring into the company. If workplace culture is particularly skewed towards a single group, it will alienate people who don’t fit the workplace norm, who will be unable to fully participate and fulfil their potential.

The situation will not change unless proactive steps are taken to level the playing field, because wittingly or unwittingly, recruitment panels are most likely to choose someone who is like them or will “fit in with the team.” As Lady Hale eloquently puts it: “It would not be impossible to speculate that it’s always much easier to perceive the merit in people who are like you than in people who are a little bit different.”

Sometimes norms which have remained unchallenged for years need to be questioned. For example, holding meetings down the pub or on the golf course may have worked in the past, but limits the people who can contribute to the conversation. Evidence also shows that introducing flexible working, whether that be home-working, part-time hours or job shares, increases staff productivity and reduces absenteeism: The best worker may not be the one who doesn’t leave their desk till 9pm.

Organisations which have embraced diversity, have reaped the benefits of improved reputation, staff retention, workforce satisfaction, creativity and performance. Workplaces are better able to serve the communities in which they are based if they are reflective of that community and the diverse needs of the people within it and workplaces where all staff feel included and have their needs met, bring out the best in their workforce.

However, equality and diversity cannot be seen as a tick box exercise, or something that an organisation has to do against its will. When the barriers come down and the senior leadership team embraces the opportunities that workforce diversity can bring; investing time and resources in order to link equality and diversity with the company’s core objectives: that is when an organisation really begins to see results.

Sarah Soyei, Director, EqualiTeach

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