Diversity and the bottom line

Having a diverse workforce can boost your bottom line. So how can you make sure your business doesn't fall at the first hurdle?

National Coming Out Day on 11 October - an annual event that celebrates coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) - will focus minds on workplace attitudes to sexual orientation. But the broader issue of workforce diversity is for many SMEs fast evolving from 'nice to have' to a business imperative.

Diversity in its broadest sense is about having a wide mix of people - and therefore a broad range of viewpoints - across your business. At its most obvious, that includes avoiding discrimination against 'protected characteristics' (under the Equality Act) such as race, gender, sexual orientation and disability. But it's also about having an open forum for different opinions about how a business is run. Google the 'diversity iceberg' and you'll discover there's a wealth of non-visible characteristics below the surface.

Anyone who thinks this is about political correctness should think again. Numerous studies highlight tangible business benefits to employing a diverse range of people in your business. Management consultancy McKinsey & Company found that companies with greater gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry average.

Meanwhile, a Forbes study of 321 global enterprises found the vast majority agreed or strongly agreed that diversity is crucial to fostering innovation.

Greater diversity is also more likely to result in better problem-solving and risk management by avoiding what psychologists term 'groupthink'.  “You either train yourself to see things from your customers' perspective or surround yourself with as many different perspectives as you can handle,” says Stephen Frost, a diversity expert and head of consultancy Frost Included. “This isn't about being nice to people; it's about making better decisions and improving your business.”

At a time when the battle for good talent is a reality for many SMEs, the benefits of higher staff retention and the ability to recruit from a larger pool of talent are not to be sniffed at. So what practical steps can you take to make sure you're attracting the most diverse range of potential recruits into your business?

Identify unconscious bias

Recognising bias towards or against certain traits is a first step to avoiding kneejerk reactions in your recruitment decisions - and it allows you to put checks and balances in place to stop those behaviours happening. Look at your 'in group' - the set of people who you consider to be your closest confidents and allies - and if it's very samey, that's a potential risk. Harvard University has developed a free implicit association test https://implicit.harvard.edu/ that assesses your conscious and unconscious preferences in over 90 different topics, ranging from pets to political issues.

Write job ads that draw people in, instead of putting them off

Make sure your recruitment process is open and fair. Consider advertising in places you wouldn't normally consider and use social media to cast the net wider. Recognise that certain vocabulary is more likely to appeal to some in the talent pool and will deter other groups of people. Balance masculine words such as 'ambition' and 'drive' with more feminine equivalents such as 'collaboration'.

“A long list of requirements will put women off,” warns Yvonne Smyth, group head of diversity at specialist recruiter Hays.

Educate hiring managers

You can have the most inclusive policies in the world, but what's important is how they are interpreted at the coal face. Leaders and managers are key to implementing systemic change. Educate all those involved in the hiring process about diversity.

“It's about encouraging them to focus on the skills and attributes required by the job,” says Kevin Duffy, advice and litigation manager at Mentor, the bank's business consultancy service. There are various online courses available, and Mentor can organise bespoke training for your company.

“Offering equal opportunities or diversity training can also make it easier to defend any discrimination claims in the future,” Duffy adds.

Have the right processes in place

Having standardised recruitment processes and role-oriented questions will iron out prejudice. And make sure that interview panels are as diverse as possible.

“Try to be flexible about when you conduct interviews,” says Duffy. “That could be important to working parents or others with caring commitments.”

Recruit the right person for the job

Many experts seem to suggest that diversity targets - such as the recommendation in Lord Davies' gender equality report to have 33% women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies by 2020 - can be unhelpful. Ultimately it's got to be about what works for your business.

“It's about attracting a good spread of people for recruiting managers but you must still employ the right person for the job,” says Sarah Bakewell, diversity and inclusion manager at defence contractor AWE.

Be wary of 'revolving door syndrome'

“If your culture is not conducive to people from diverse backgrounds doing well, they will leave,” warns chartered occupational psychologist Juliette Alban-Metcalfe from Real World Group. Ensure staff feel their voices are heard at all levels of the organisation, have positive role models and tell good stories about how diversity is good for business.

Reverse mentoring is a useful technique that allows the people in the organisation to educate each other and learn new ways of thinking. Remember that diversity initiatives need to go hand in hand with inclusion. “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance,” explains Smyth.

The reality is there's no quick fix. Avoiding workforce homogeneity and transforming cultures, procedures and practices is not easy, particularly if inequality is hidden, accidental or subtly ingrained in the organisation. But it's time to open our minds to what merit looks like.

NatWest Mentor offers expert business advice on employment law and HR, health and safety, and environmental management.

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