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How to talk about diversity and inclusion in the workplace effectively.

Over the past couple of decades, workplace diversity and inclusivity have quickly become a major priority for many businesses. On the one hand, it’s simply a matter of basic fairness. But, on the other, diverse workforces directly benefit their organisations in numerous ways. Despite this, however, a lot of people can find it hard to broach the topic of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. But HR and business leaders need to overcome these anxieties if you want to be able to promote workplace D&I effectively.

People are afraid to discuss diversity and inclusion in the workplace

A recent survey from RightTrack Learning found that 55% of people are afraid of discussing workplace inclusivity and diversity, apparently because they’re worried about saying the wrong thing. 51% of respondents also reported associating the terms “equality, diversity and inclusion” with “political correctness.” 49% had positive associations with the terms, and that they highlighted opportunities for change.

RightTrack Learning’s Leading Director, Claudia Cooney, highlighted the need for a more open dialogue. ‘We are instilling the message that discriminatory behaviour is not okay and there will be consequences. But we must be mindful of how we are driving change. Fear of saying the wrong thing is a barrier we must dissolve. It’s no good staying in our own bubbles and being too afraid to delve into uncomfortable topics; we must instead nurture a culture of curiosity.’

And on the topic of political correctness, Cooney said, ‘When people do or say the right thing to be “politically correct”, the outward behaviour may look good, but the motivation behind the words and actions can be less than desirable. The results imply that more than half of people display inclusive behaviour in the interests of toeing the line, rather than a true desire to contribute to an inclusive society.’

It’s important to hold people to account for discrimination and bullying at work. But helping employees to realise the benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace is an equally vital step. People who parrot inclusive sentiments for fear of reprisals can’t be counted on to support workplace D&I when nobody else is watching.

The benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace

Obviously, the biggest reason for greater diversity and inclusion in the workplace is to make more careers accessible to a wider range of people. While this includes women, people from different cultures, and those with disabilities or health problems, it also means making workplaces fairer for neurodiverse employees. Beyond that, there are also several ways that workplace D&I can objectively make your business more successful.

  • A more productive and profitable workplace: Over the years, McKinsey have released several reports on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, building an array of statistical evidence for how workplace diversification can boost productivity and profitability.

    In 2019, they found that executive teams in the top quartile for gender diversity were 25% more productive than those in the bottom quartile. The same year, McKinsey also found that companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity were 36% more profitable than those in the bottom.

  • More creative insight: When people come from the same background, with similar life experiences, they’re more likely to take similar approaches. Innovation is key to business success, especially in competitive industries and sectors, but is stifled in organisations that lack diverse pools of employee insight.

  • More informed decision-making: It’s a simple fact of life that nobody is infallible. Two heads are better than one, and groups of people with diverse knowledge and skillsets can effectively cover each other’s blind spots, as highlighted by a study of 600 business decisions from 200 different teams. The study found that group decision-making outperformed individual decision-making almost 90% of the time.

    More importantly, although the decision-making of all-male teams outperformed individuals 58% of the time, this rose to 73% for gender-diverse teams. But the most successful were teams with geographical, gender and age-based diversity, which were most likely to have the best performance overall (87%).

How to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Supporting diversity at work requires a thought-out process. It’s about a lot more than just putting a sign up in the window, saying, “hey everyone, we’re not racist/sexist/homophobic anymore!”

  • Push for diverse leaders and mentors: Supportive managers can be an employee’s most powerful advocates. That’s why, beyond productivity, it’s vital to have diverse leadership. On top of that, women and employees from ethnic minority backgrounds can stand to benefit the most from diverse mentors, who have personally experienced the obstacles their mentees face.

  • Educate, don’t belittle: Part of opening up the conversation around diversity and inclusion means giving people the room to learn without judgement. Obviously, if an employee keeps going from one politically incorrect gaffe to the next, it should merit firmer action.

    But, if someone discussing workplace D&I policy accidentally says something that’s poorly thought out, resist the urge to publicly shame them. People are less likely to dig their heels in and more likely to be receptive if you explain how their remark could be interpreted offensively, while acknowledging that it isn’t necessarily what they meant.

  • Account for unconscious biases: Everyone has unconscious biases, even the most well-meaning of us, so take those biases out of the equation. Namely, with blind applicant screening (removing names, genders, geographical backgrounds or other personal cultural signifiers on job applications when shortlisting candidates) and diverse recruitment panels to objectively select the best people for the job.

  • Let people tell you what they need to succeed: When people are afraid to discuss workplace D&I, you might wonder how to talk about diversity at work. The most important thing you can do is enable employees to self-advocate. After all, the last thing a diverse workforce needs is the most privileged among them making unilateral assumptions and decisions. Check-in with employees from all walks of life, create a dialogue and take steps to implement change based on what you learn.

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