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Only through inclusion can you make the most out of workforce diversity

5 July 2021 at 5:15 pm
Andrew Cairns
Whatever your strategic approach or wherever you are on your journey, getting diversity and inclusion right in the workplace is well worth the commitment of time and resources, writes Andrew Cairns.

Andrew Cairns | 5 July 2021 at 5:15 pm


Only through inclusion can you make the most out of workforce diversity
5 July 2021 at 5:15 pm

Whatever your strategic approach or wherever you are on your journey, getting diversity and inclusion right in the workplace is well worth the commitment of time and resources, writes Andrew Cairns.

Like many organisations, we’re on a journey to foster a diverse workforce and inclusive culture in the workplace.

As employers, we know that truly diverse and inclusive workplaces are more than policies, practices, and procedures. And we know from extensive research both here and overseas that such workplaces are generally higher performing, more innovative and creative, and attract talent from the broadest possible pool of potential employees. Diverse and inclusive workplaces also earn deeper trust and commitment from their staff.

The business case for diversity and inclusion started in the 1960s. The original model for diversity focused on affirmative action and equal opportunity employment. This compliance approach gave rise to tokenism as some organisations tried to avoid criticism by appearing to treat people fairly. The social justice model that has since evolved extended the idea that individuals outside the dominant group of pale, stale, white males should be given opportunities within the workplace, not only because it was instituted as a law but also because it was the right thing to do.

But a diverse workplace is not necessarily an inclusive one. Likewise, an inclusive workplace is not necessarily diverse.

So how do we elevate the debate around the value of diversity and inclusion in the workplace? 

The Diversity Council of Australia (DCA) defines diversity as being the mix of people in an organisation, that is, all the differences between people in how they relate to their social and professional identities.

Rice University goes further by categorising three levels of diversity among and between people. Surface-level diversity, which represents readily visible characteristics, including, but not limited to, age, body size, visible disabilities, race, or gender. Deep-level diversity, which includes attitudes, values, and beliefs. Finally, hidden diversity, which includes traits that are deep-level but may be concealed or revealed at the discretion of individuals who possess them, such as sexual orientation.

These aspects come together in a unique way for each person and shape how they view and perceive their world and workplace and how others view and treat them.

Inclusion refers to getting the mix of people in an organisation to work together to improve performance and wellbeing. Inclusion in a workplace is achieved only when people feel that they belong – that they are respected for who they are, are connected to their colleagues, can contribute their views and talents, and have equal access to opportunities and resources.

Diversity without inclusion often perpetuates tokenism. If people don’t feel accepted, if they can’t bring their whole selves to work, and if they aren’t given enough power to wield influence, then your organisation may have an inclusion problem and potentially a tokenism problem.

It is only through inclusion that organisations can make the most out of diversity.

A one-size-fits-all approach does not work for everybody, so when endeavouring to foster an inclusive workplace culture, the collective human resource wisdom is to place the emphasis on valuing people’s abilities instead of limitations. For example, some people thrive when working remotely, but others require face-to-face human interaction to do their best work. Some more confident employees flourish when put on the spot in meetings, while less vocal employees need time and space to consider their response. Some demographic groups require encouragement and support to apply for a job vacancy or promotion, while the expectations of others may need to be managed.

Whatever your strategic approach or wherever you are on your journey, getting diversity and inclusion right in the workplace is well worth the commitment of time and resources.

Findings from the biennial Inclusion@Work Index showed that people who work in an inclusive and diverse culture were five times more likely to innovate, three times more likely to work extra hard, and three times more likely to provide excellent customer service.

The survey of more than 3,000 employees also found that three out of four Australian workers supported or strongly supported their organisation to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Business leaders should use their influence as a force for good by modelling, through their actions, how to honour and respect the dignity of every single person.

One of the best places to start is to have candid conversations about exclusion and how it makes people feel. Listen and learn from others. It’s how you can empathise with others and raise awareness around uncomfortable realities like discrimination and identity bias. 

These conversations require a level of vulnerability, openness, and courage to provide staff with a forum to share their personal experiences and perspectives.

While not everyone can relate to the same experiences, acknowledging that a co-worker has gone through difficult situations and still shows up to work every day can lead to more empathy. It could also enable ally-ship, which is crucial for organisations to create genuinely inclusive cultures and workplace practices.

We might not have all the answers, and if we’re honest, none of us are where we should be, but if we can admit our shortcomings and lean into these conversations, we can take the next necessary steps to drive real positive change in our workplaces.

Andrew Cairns  |  @ProBonoNews

Andrew Cairns is the CEO of Haven; Home, Safe, a homelessness services organisation that specialises in housing social and affordable solutions. Prior to joining Haven, he held several senior management roles including more than 19 years with the Bendigo and Adelaide Bank Group and almost five years as CEO of Community Sector Banking. He is also the chair of Western Water Corporation.

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