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How to build a truly diverse and inclusive work environment

Posted on: April 26, 2022
Diverse workforce in an office at desks together

Too often, organisational initiatives aimed at addressing issues of workplace diversity and ethics fall short of their intended goals. Too often, they’re ‘sticking plasters’ which fail to meaningfully address underlying problems; in many cases, short-term enthusiasm and commitment fades, and any progress is either minimal or short-lived; worse yet, attempts at diversity are labelled ‘vanity projects’, the only tangible outcome how out-of-touch senior management appear in the eyes of their employees.

As per the Equality Act 2010, it is against the law to discriminate – both in terms of employer-employee and employee-employee interactions – against the following protected characteristics:

  •  Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Disability
  • Religion or belief
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage or civil partnerships
  • Pregnancy and maternity

True diversity goes further than this still. While ethnic diversity, gender diversity and cultural diversity may be the more-immediate examples that spring to mind, workforce diversity also includes dimensions such as language, education level, viewpoints, neurodivergence, abilities and more. It encompasses the different backgrounds, experiences and characteristics of all members of society, and the richness that comes with them.

In 2022, while many workplaces have come a long way in championing diversity and inclusivity, there remains a long way to go and considerable work to be done. The following statistics shed light on the current status quo in organisations across the UK and US:

  • Only 19.7% of company or organisational board members are women; more generally, hiring chances for women increase up to 46% when taking part in blind applications.
  • Ethnic minority employees hold only 1 in 16 top management positions in the UK, and the overall employment rate for ethnic minority employees is 62.8%.
  • 67.5% of LGBTQ+ employees report hearing negative slurs, jokes or comments about LGBTQ+ people at work, and the lack of diversity in a working environment discourages 41% of LGBTQ+ job seekers to not apply for a job at a company.
  • Working-class employees with the same education credentials as middle-class employees earn 17% less on average, and people from working-class backgrounds who achieve higher grades than peers of wealthier backgrounds are still less likely to go into professions such as medicine, finance and law.

Whose responsibility is it to promote diversity issues in the workplace? How long does it take to enact meaningful change? Two things are certain: diversity is not something that should be confined to circles of HR professionals, and it’s not something that can be resolved overnight. 

What are the benefits to fostering diverse and inclusive work environments?

Diversity is crucial to our modern, multicultural world. As such, it should also be reflected, and celebrated, in our places of work. Employees of different demographics – including backgrounds, experiences, knowledge and skill sets – bring a wealth of innovation, creativity and diversity of thought into organisations. Recent research indicates that workforces shaped by diverse viewpoints are proven to be “more creative, faster problem-solvers, more innovative and better at decision making.”

One of the most critical outcomes is that the workforce as a whole will be happier. Positive, inclusive work environments – where individuals feel welcome, respected, represented and appreciated – have a similarly positive impact on a labour force’s work quality and productivity. Employee engagement and motivation serves to increase retention, as well as attracting top talent and raising brand awareness. Co-workers who celebrate differences are more-skilled collaborators, forging closer working relationships and driving further work results in turn.

Organisations operate in a multicultural, global marketplace. As such, those who prioritise diversity are better placed to understand their customers. Staff members who share experiences and backgrounds with sectors of a customer base are better-placed to identify routes to market, pain points for certain demographics, and the best ways to meet their wide-ranging needs.

Put simply, it very literally pays to prioritise organisational diversity: each of these factors drive profitability and enhance a company’s bottom line.

How to promote diversity in the workplace

One of the most-fundamental actions an organisation can take is to ensure its employees – across all levels and functions – possess a baseline understanding of diversity and inclusion. The simplest way to achieve this is through thoughtfully designed, compulsory diversity-focused training and education for all staff members. Line managers and others whose roles require specific people management responsibilities could also undertake additional training – it’s a mistake to assume that all managers know how to oversee a diverse workforce. Sensitivity and cultural training will benefit both sides, allowing employees to feel supported to achieve their full potential. There are plenty of training providers who offer inclusivity and diversity programmes and sessions if in-house expertise is not available.

Organisations must listen to their employees and other stakeholders. For business leaders, it can be difficult to gauge how employees across an organisation really feel about the culture and practices of a workplace. Regular ‘town-hall’-style sessions, staff forums, exit interviews, focus groups and staff networks can all be used to facilitate two-way discussion with employees, discovering the issues that matter to them and exploring potential solutions. If staff members feel unable to share honest views – perhaps for fear of further discrimination and attention – anonymous questionnaires and surveys can offer a discreet form of feedback and data gathering.

Diversity policy offers a valuable framework to ground business ethics in practical applications. Organisations should ensure that formal, corporate governance exists to share and uphold codes of conduct relating to diversity and inclusion. Aim to create more-inclusive workplace policies, including a full assessment of current practices. For example, recruitment, performance evaluation and promotion processes may all need re-examining to remove barriers to diversity.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts so often focus on the external. Organisations should make a concerted effort to also turn their CSR gaze inwards. If promoting ethical issues is key, then how do internal business practices match up? Is the right representation found in the boardroom? Are recruitment and hiring processes championing and supporting inclusivity? Is the business an equal opportunities employer? Not only will positive change ripple through existing structures and pave the way for progress but, chances are, taking affirmative action to address internal diversity issues will also attract new customers and build customer loyalty. Consumers enjoy concentrating spending power on organisations who invest in, and subscribe to, ethical behaviours they also believe in.

There are plenty of other starting points for building diversity into work environments:

  • Educate leaders and managers
  • Form inclusion councils and employee-led task forces
  • Celebrate differences and make diverse teams the norm
  • Develop internal communication strategies
  • Create meaningful opportunities for engagement
  • Establish mentorship programmes
  • Offer workplace flexibility

Whichever combination of approaches an organisation opts for, the key is to demonstrate sustained commitment. Effective, impactful diversity and inclusion efforts need to be embedded in the ethos and culture of an entire organisation. As with any other business case, it’s important to benchmark from the outset, taking stock of the current situation and what the key performance indicators are of progress. Clearly communicating goals – making them specific, measurable and time-bound – helps identify which ventures have been successful, and which require further thought or investment.

Set the standard for inclusive and diverse workforces in your organisation

Develop as an ethical, responsible leader with Keele University’s online MBA programme. Grounded in a global, real-world business context – and designed in collaboration with employers – this flexible MBA provides the expertise and skills to navigate both macro and micro challenges of organisational leadership. 

Your studies will encompass strategy, human resource management, marketing, innovation and entrepreneurship, accounting and finance, and much more, equipping you with vital skills such as decision-making, communication and critical thinking.

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