Traditionally, workplace diversity has been thought of in terms of the noticeable differences between individuals, such as age, ethnicity, gender and race, with the motivation of eliminating discrimination based on these differences. However, diversity means different things in different parts of the world. It is not just an ethical or moral imperative. It means more than having a sprinkle of women and a dab of colour. Diversity is about what defines individuals and what makes them unique. It embraces individual backgrounds, personas, values and life experiences. It is a cohesive blend of the noticeable and obscure differences that mould a person’s approach, outlook and understanding of the world.
The 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath, has stressed the importance of diversity of thought. Business owners, corporate leaders and senior managers have heard and chatted about ‘the business case for diversity’ for some time now, yet for a number of organisations, diversity management remains an evolving concept. There seem to be more head nodding and lip service regarding the business case than a rolling up of the sleeves to take action. Thus, leaving people to wonder whether the concept of diversity is only skin deep. Then again how far does the message spring? Is it agreed and understood from the industrial unit to the boardroom and with the weight of firm conviction?
According to ACCA’s collaborative document, Driving Business Performance through Diversity, diversity is not about innovation, diversity is about survival. It’s not a luxury. It’s essential staple thinking. Echoing the document, Alison Maitland, a business author specialising in leadership, diversity and the changing world of work, cited in a similar ACCA’s report, Towards better Diversity Management, that diversity (or lack thereof) can affect an organisation’s corporate brand and makes an immense difference to both potential consumers and free market talent when considering similar products or similar employers.
Diversity + inclusion = improved business outcome.
While a lot of organisations are still struggling with more traditional diversity issues, companies in the developed world are progressively fixated on the necessity for knowledge and cross-cultural skills. ACCA’s report: Towards better diversity management, states that there is a clear shift of emphasis in the search for what works among more experienced companies. Instead of, or alongside, programmes focusing on categories of employees – women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, etc. – organisations are investing in developing leaders and creating inclusive cultures. Some companies have gone as far as renaming their strategy to ‘Inclusion and Diversity’, instead of ‘Diversity and Inclusion.’ More and more organisations are renaming, restructuring and redefining their programmes and strategies to reflect their emphasis on culture change. Diversity is often leveraged through inclusion. In other words, diversity is leveraged through the extent in which employees feel valued and included by an organisation. This can be realised through inclusive leadership. Inclusive leadership ensures that all employees have the opportunity to achieve their individual and combined potential. The concepts of diversity and inclusion are closely related but it is possible for an organisation can have a diverse workforce without inclusion and vice versa. However, one short of the other is only half of the business performance equation. Basically: diversity + inclusion = improved business outcomes.
Diversity of thought, as its definition befits, refers to the idea of more-than-one-way. This is essential to understanding the potential of diversity and inclusion as an organisational resource. Diversity is a reality. According to a report, Only skin deep? Re-examining the business case for diversity, inscribed by Deloitte, concentrating on diversity and inclusion enables organisations to see employees as individuals rather than as representatives of a group. Furthermore, it engages employees, creates a new line of inquiry, helps to establish common ground when working together and provides a focal point that is applicable across different cultural and sometimes national contexts thus impacting performance and business outcomes positively.
In South Africa, diversity is easy to talk about, but harder to put into practice. Simply having diversity is not enough. The question goes beyond simply including diversity and inclusion on the list of strategic goals to one of realising the connection between diversity and inclusion as well as the achievement of the other goals on that list. Success rests on the acceptance that the value of diversity lies in developing an inclusive workplace – and that means adaptation, not just assimilation and tolerance.