Fostering diversity in the workplace

08.08.18

The word ‘diversity’ is often thrown about in the corporate world (and beyond), but what does it (really) mean?

Diversity is more than just having a range of employee­s of different age, gender, ethnicity, physical ability, sexual orientation, religious belief, work experience and educational background. It’s about fostering an inclusive environment where people feel their differences and strengths are accepted and embraced, and everyone has opportunities to achieve their full potential.

“Workplace diversity means creating an inclusive environment that embraces the differences among employees and enables individual strengths to come to the fore,” explains Natasha Hawker, senior HR practitioner and director of Employee Matters.

“Where companies embrace diversity entirely, the benefits are enormous. Improved results around revenue, productivity and better decision-making are just a few. Diversity in the workplace can also have a positive effect on employee morale, improving loyalty to the organisation and enhancing how employees speak about their organisation to those outside.”

A 2017 nationwide survey of more than 3000 Australian workers proposes people in inclusive teams are five times more likely to provide excellent customer/client service, and 19 times more likely to be very satisfied with their job compared to those in non-inclusive teams.

So, it’s clear diversity is important, but what does it mean for Australian businesses in practice?

Overcoming challenges

In order to glean maximum benefits of diversity in the workplace, businesses need to be fully on board at all levels, Hawker says.

“One way to assess if a business really walks the walk rather than just paying lip service to diversity is to look at the composition of the management tiers,” Hawker says. “Does the proportion of women and people from ethnic minorities in management roles reflect the composition of the company’s total workforce? If not, are there stated goals or objectives to achieve a certain proportion of these sectors of the workforce in senior roles within a certain timeframe?”

There are many factors to take into account when embracing diversity policies.

“Many cultures, especially across Asia, observe a strict hierarchy within the workplace that can make it difficult for junior staff to speak up in front of their seniors or to offer counter points of view,” explains Hawker. “Don’t assume that silence from someone in a meeting means that they have nothing to contribute. You may need to encourage other forms of communication to fully benefit from what some people have to offer.”

Locally, for many companies, workplace diversity is on the agenda. In fact, a recent report from Deloitte highlights strong organisational support for addressing the issue in Australia. According to the 2017 report, Rewriting the rules for the digital age, more than three in four business and HR leaders said diversity and inclusion was ‘important’ or ‘very important’. Australian companies have also more than tripled the number of women on ASX 200 boards in just six years; up from just 8.3 percent in 2009 to 27.9 percent in 2018, according to AICD figures.

Aside from the benefits for productivity and morale, it’s possible that diverse, inclusive workplaces could result in improved workplace health and wellbeing. This could be achieved by catering for different demographics and cultures within programs, and accepting and supporting different health risk and needs as well as encouraging everyone to participate and provide feedback.

Here are Hawker’s suggestions for putting the above into practice and embracing diversity in the workplace:

  • Have an office function for International Women’s Day (March 8) each year and ensure all employees are included.
  • Ensure social functions take into account the cultural norms of all ethnic backgrounds represented in the workforce. This may include considering some alcohol-free events or encouraging people of different backgrounds to share something of their culture. “A weekly morning or afternoon tea where people take it in turns to prepare food from their country of origin is a fun way to share and learn,” she says.
  • Acknowledge the various holidays and celebrations that exist across the range of nationalities and religions present in your workplace. “Produce a calendar that highlights these events and then acknowledge them as they occur,” she says. “For example, an email to all staff on the date of the event that gives a brief description of its significance.”
  • Have inclusive programs around education on diversity and inclusion.
  • Actively promote diversity groups and get other groups interested. “Some companies sponsor Mardi Gras,” says Hawker. “Volunteers are definitely not just confined to LGBTI employees – everyone wants to be part of it.”
  • Ensure your senior employees are on board. “Managers who acknowledge or reward positive diversity behaviours will increase the support of diversity across the organisation.”

Remember that diversity takes time and needs to be championed from the top down. It isn’t something an organisation simply decides to ‘do’ but rather something it builds into its long-term strategy. This needs to be done in a way that will work for the organisation DNA, and then be actively facilitated through education, awareness and cultural sensitivity training. If it’s not just cosmetic, both the business and employees will be better for it.

Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland (ADCQ). Diversity in the workplace [Online, accessed Aug 2018] Available from: www.adcq.qld.gov.au

Australian Government. business.gov.au. Equal opportunity and diversity [Online, last updated Jul 2018, accessed Aug 2018] Available from: www.business.gov.au

Australian Institute of Company Directors. Board diversity statistics [Online] 2018 [Accessed Aug 2018] Available from: http://aicd.companydirectors.com.au

Deloitte Australia. Australian companies are making diversity a priority [Online] 2017 [Accessed Aug 2018] Available from: http://blog.deloitte.com.au

Deloitte Australia & the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. Waiter, is that inclusion in my soup? A new recipe to improve business performance [Online] 2013 [Accessed Aug 2018] Available from: https://www2.deloitte.com

Deloitte. Rewriting the rules for the digital age – 2017 Deloitte global human capital trends [Online] 2017 [Accessed Aug 2018] Available from: https://www2.deloitte.com

Inside HR. 5 key steps to implementing a successful diversity program [Online] 2017 [Accessed Aug 2018] Available from: www.insidehr.com.au