Gaining benefits from a diverse workforce

Are you gaining benefits from a diverse workforce?

The business case for being positive about diversity at work is not just legal and financial, it is also closely linked to looking after your customers as well as your staff. Although many organisations are becoming more aware of the legal aspects of discrimination, a focus on the legislation will not change hearts and minds.

The psychological concepts important for diversity are based on ideas of stereotyping, group membership, prejudice and aspects of personality such as authoritarianism. Stereotyping (ideas held about other people based solely on their membership of particular groups or their physical characteristics) is a useful ‘survival instinct’ process, that evolved to help creatures to make quick decisions at time of danger. However, because humans have evolved complex cultures and have in many ways integrated, stereotyping is often no longer a useful reaction. The good news is people can learn how to reduce the level of stereotyping and to respond to others without prejudice.
But how can we truly engender a positive attitude towards difference?

  • The crucial thing is to start at the top – if senior directors are seen to be taking equality seriously, the rest will be more likely to follow. Monitor the language used – the wrong tone can have a huge impact.
  • The environment and culture of the organization is vital – stereotyping and prejudice are supported by interpersonal communication and public acceptance. All managers should have diversity as part of their objectives. Make sure diversity is not just something that belongs to your ethnic minorities or older workers.
  • Training and awareness in the organization is vital, and needs to allow people room to explore their own feelings and reactions. However, care should be taken here. There is evidence that much of the standard diversity training on offer risks making things worse not better. Again this is due to the psychological processes involved, people are made aware of their own biases and the unfairness experienced by others, yet this can make them feel an even stronger group membership and increase prejudice. Choose your training provider carefully.

We are increasingly being asked to run ‘remedial sessions’ for staff in situations where they and the organisation are at risk of discrimination claims. This is so sad, as research shows a truly positively diverse culture can lead to a more effective organisation. Don’t let it get to that stage – take positive steps now to gain the full business benefit.