What are the benefits of diversity in the workplace?

Research and innovation

Dr Kathryn Watson is Research Impact Manager and a Senior Research Fellow at Leeds University Business School. Her research focuses on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. She is currently leading a three-year ESRC project in collaboration with Marks & Spencer. Kathryn recently took part in the "Pride of Place" panel event at Wellington Place, Leeds. The below first appeared on the Wellington Place blog and is a transcript of the panel discussion.

Panel photograph

Attracting the right talent is not just important for organisations, but essential for a happy productive workforce. Studies show that an inclusive workforce can be hugely beneficial to workplaces:

Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report cited diversity and inclusion as “important” or “very important” to business, with results amongst the workforce showing:

  • 80 per cent said inclusivity is important for them at work
  • 33 per cent “don’t feel I’m able to be myself at work – can’t innovate”
  • 70 per cent would leave their organisation for one that’s more inclusive

In another report, 80 per cent of world’s Fortune 500 said inclusivity in the workplace was beneficial to their organisations.

In August 2018, MEPC, Wellington Place and Sky Betting & Gaming came together to host a panel debate on the topic and below are some of the key insights from the event.

The panel members included:

Greg Wright – Deputy Business Editor at the Yorkshire Post (host)

Tanja Lichtensteiger – Engineering Manager at Sky Betting and Gaming

Jim Wright – Employment Law Expert and Partner, Shulmans LLP

Sue Pascoe – Advisor on Inclusion for Channel 4

Craig Burton – The Works Recruitment and Trustee of Leeds Community Foundation

Rob Wilson – Chair of the Leeds City Council LGBT+ Staff Network

Kathryn Watson – Research Impact Manager and Senior Research Fellow at Leeds University Business School

Charlotte Sweeney OBE – Inclusion Specialist, Author and Founder of ‘Creating Inclusive Cultures’

Tom Doyle – CEO, Yorkshire MESMAC

What does inclusivity mean to you?

Sue Pascoe: Inclusivity to me means for everyone. Being a trans-woman gives me a very personal perspective of what it means to be ‘excluded’. From an organisational point of view, diversity is about getting the mix right and inclusion is about getting the mix to work for everybody – and then embedding inclusive ways of working in everything you do. Doing this gives clear strategic benefits and advantages to a business.

Tanja Lichtensteiger: Opportunity for people to be happy, love and be loved, empowered and to allow them to prosper.

Rob Wilson: People being safe and feeling valued – it’s about creativity, celebration and harnessing that. Organisations may think they have to do it, but making people feel safe and valued is more than ticking a box, it’s about meaning it. It has been shown that employees who spend more energy editing themselves to fit in, won’t be as effective in the workplace.

Charlotte Sweeney: I break inclusivity into three simple things; everyone has a right to feel valued, everyone deserves to have a voice and a platform to speak on and everyone deserves the people around them to hear them – there’s no point having a voice if no one will listen.

How can organisations support LGBT+ employees?

Charlotte Sweeney: We need to have the courage to enable conversation and set the tone from the top. Your mind shifts to a different space when you’re looking at learning rather than problem-solving and it’s about being honest and saying; “I don’t know all the answers but I’m willing to learn and willing to listen.” So, it’s that tone from the top that says; “Do you know what? Every individual does not have all the answers, we all have different perspectives so let’s share them.”

Sue Pascoe: Since I started at Channel 4, something amazing has happened. People have seen that it’s okay to be openly trans in the organisation. I’ve had mums come up and share that they have a teenager who is going through gender questioning – I share my experience and my network with them and suddenly more people come out and share their own experiences. I think if you get more people who are prepared to be open and talk, you get a more diverse conversation. The tune comes from the top, and inclusive leaders are so important for organisations to be a truly inclusive place to work.

Tom Doyle: I’ve never met a non-binary or gender fluid person who hasn’t had a situation with pronouns. People are sometimes afraid to have the conversation but having a supportive community within the workplace is the first step. Supporting each other without judgement enables that conversation, which in turn allows others to understand what is right. Diversity and inclusivity are ever-changing, they are not something that can just be ticked off. They’re a continuous task and something that we all need to be aware of.

What support and steps can be taken to make people feel included in the workplace?

Rob Wilson: I’m based in HR, so my role involves supporting a range of staff networks. Specifically talking around non-binary, there are quite a few practical things that we do in partnership with Staff Network and the wider organisation. Our Chief Officer for HR is reverse-mentored by a member of the Staff Network – who identifies as non-binary – so something great that’s come from this is sharing that knowledge. Having people in managerial positions is all well and good, but they’re not always equipped to deal with issues like these, so we need to be improving on what we already have.

Kathryn Watson: I’ve been working with Marks & Spencer and it has five diversity networks that are employee-led to meet specific needs. One of them is an LGBT network that’s done a tremendous amount of valuable work within the organisation, but I believe they do recognise they have more work to do.

There are practical issues; gender-neutral toilets and changing rooms in stores and so on, but if you take a large organisation like M&S, they have a lot of line managers who are often in situations where they’re presented with problems that are totally new to them. They have access to an essential service in People Policies, so any line manager can call this centre and get advice from specialists within that area and on any employment matter.

I think, generally in organisations, that a good starting point would be to start looking at training the HR professionals in order to help them deal with issues involving transgender people, as there are studies that show that transgender people are the most discriminated people in the workforce.

What can those in leadership roles do and what are the practical steps they can take to manage issues that arise in the workplace?

Kathryn Watson: I think you do need leadership from the top level of an organisation but that has to be spread throughout the company as well – on any diversity issue, you need the partnership between the people at the top and people throughout the organisation. They should have a starting point that there is an issue, then there needs to be something done about it, rather than sort of instantly feeling they have this panacea at this point. Just talk openly about it.

Jim Wright: In every discrimination claim that I have been asked for my view on since the 90s, there have been three themes;

  • Failure by top-level director management to set the right tone
  • They’ve tried to set the right tone but have then tried to set all the rules, rather than pushing it down and trying to grow things from the bottom up.
  • It’s getting line managers or HR in organisations big enough to; have an understanding for that group, destroy the assumptions that those people have, and to realise that the stereotypes those individuals have grown up with are no longer valid.

No child is ever born seeing people in characteristic groups, that’s entirely learnt, and Generation Z is beginning to be the first where they haven’t learnt all those things because they’re not in the workforce of the 80s, 90s or early noughties. That’s where the hope is and the things that make me think, “Actually, this is going in a positive direction.” This is why I do agree that in five years’ time, a lot of people might look back at this and think, “Why on earth have you lot wasted your time talking about this?”

Rob Wilson: The Staff Network has open conversation groups in the Alliance Project (for those who don’t identify) sharing the same perspective with the same knowledge – sharing is hugely important for understanding and making steps towards moving forward.

Tanja Lichtensteiger: Have the conversation – everyone’s experiences are different. Having the courage, create a psychologically safe environment where you enable conversation. This is essential.

Charlotte Sweeney: I’ve worked with many organisations, but one drinks company had ‘The Human Library’ involved, which is designed to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue – “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The people are books that you can ask any questions, no matter how difficult. This has been a great tool for them and something that has really helped create discussion.

We need to look at unconscious bias in the workplace. Line managers are where they are because of a technicality, not the ‘people stuff’. The fear is they don’t know how to do it, so they do how others do, or say nothing at all. We are doing our leaders a huge disservice by not giving the right training to those dealing with it. We need to give these new skills and create the safe space for it.

How can organisations measure the success of diversity in the workplace?

Kathryn Watson: In the UK there is a great deal of qualitative research on diversity within the workplace. Whereas the American literature often focuses on quantitatively assessing the impact of diversity on corporate performance using large databases which can be difficult to prove a connection.  However, at an organisational level if you are improving diversity and inclusion and see tangible benefits, you can see results. M&S has data that shows this.  For organisations to have this evidence is important, it’s proof – and therefore, the top level will want to devote time and resources if they see the benefits.

Tanja Lichtensteiger: How secure does your workforce feel? How comfortable they are – that they enjoy coming to work, focus on the job and delivery without having to worry about what others judge or say about them.

Charlotte Sweeney: Organisations can measure in a few ways;

  • Look at your majority and minority groups
  • Get the perspective of your brand or company from clients on your products; what does your demographic look like from their eyes?
  • Would you give discretionary effort to this person or company?
  • What’s being said outside – look at Glassdoor comments, social media…
  • Measure recruitment – but be aware that this doesn’t show inclusion. You can measure who leaves your company as that’s a good indicator. Find out what they’re saying and why they’re leaving

What can opening the conversation really do?

Tom Doyle: Section 28 is still a problem in education as they’re scared to talk about sexuality. By teaching kids about groups, we’re telling them that’s how it is…

Charlotte Sweeney: It’s true. We don’t want to knock uniqueness and authenticity out of kids from school through an education that will label and compartmentalise groups.

Rob Wilson: We should ensure that individuals stay unique, don’t lose their authenticity and don’t make people feel like they need to change to fit in. We need to embrace it, or we will never move forward or advance!

Tanja Lichtensteiger: The stigma should be tackled head-on. We shouldn’t be afraid to take it on, unlike our past generations – we can make it right and we can make it right from now.

Inclusivity and diversity aren’t a fad, they are here to stay. I work in a sector with a very technical skillset and finding the right people to fit these roles is difficult. Companies are aware of the competition to attract talent, so we need to be open about the conversation in order to ensure we’re getting the most and the best from all the people who deserve these positions.

We shouldn’t be complacent. At some point, the highly skilled will choose their boss.

Kathryn Watson: At Aston University they ran a survey on transgender employees in social co-operatives in Italy. They discovered that there was complete silence and fear of coming out and being their own identity in the workplace, noting it’s “just impossible for me to consider saying I’m trans in the environment”, but goes on to say about the organisational structure of heteronormativity. Most businesses work this way, the environment isn’t friendly to those non-binary or other, but although not easy, communication is vital in a journey to make it a friendlier environment.

Jim Wright: There’s this fear of conversations between employer and employee. Not talking about these things generates fear amongst line managers as they are the ones dealing with the day-to-day, and pressure is also placed on HR teams. Fear is because of ignorance; line managers should have the tools at their disposal. At the top, they’re setting the right tone which shows others could make it to the top, regardless of X, Y and Z.

Craig Burton: In the 80s I was fired for being gay. Fast forward 30 years, every day a recruiter will make a great decision on behalf of HR people, but a recruiter who is out of those company’s policies will make a decision outside of the company, presuming what they do – and don’t – like. HR teams from within an organisation need to remind recruiters about its values, ensuring you’re getting the right people for the work, regardless of their background.

Sue Pascoe: Being ‘authentic’ is now a way of life for me. I’m no longer fearful of others, I am free. I used to live my life based on what ‘they’ would think and certain members of my family also lived their lives based on what ‘they’ would think of our relationship. My fear, where I used to work, was that one day they’d find out that I was not my ‘true self’. It was debilitating and crippling, though I got on with what I needed to do. Today, I am much more productive.

We fear ‘them’, and we don’t even know who they are. The more we expect to have to act a certain way, the more we fear being different.

Tom Doyle: If people are fearful, they aren’t creative. It’s a hostile environment and then they don’t want to go the extra mile. The environment needs to be created where they want to do this.

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