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Safia Boot
Managing Director, Respect at Work Limited and guest blogger for The Work Foundation
Safia Boot

Navigating Diversity

Authors: Safia Boot Safia Boot, Managing Director, Respect at Work ltd

17 July 2013

If truth be told, for a large part of my early career in HR I tiptoed around roles focused on leading on the ‘Equal Opportunities, Diversity and Inclusion’ agenda due to the negative perception that such roles were not perceived as real work but on the periphery of the organisation’s core purpose. Activity was focused on creating lengthy policies but with no real action plans to support a change in behaviour at an everyday level. A further reason was that as an ethnic minority I did not want to be type-cast into a specialism within HR that was further ‘ghettoised’. For me there was a contradiction between the rhetoric and reality. The champions of any cause need to live the values and vision they promote.

The diversity agenda used to be about looking at the costs and consequences of getting it wrong, increasingly it’s about the potential of getting it right. It’s about making your organisation a great place to work and indirectly supporting community cohesion. For me the best way to influence the diversity and inclusion agenda and thereby make a difference to the quality of working lives is getting involved in grass roots decision making. It’s about the micro decisions and interactions we have on a daily basis and how we leave people feeling. It’s about being prepared to challenge to ensure appropriate decisions are made such as recruitment, selection, promotion, pay/reward, performance assessment, restructuring, development and dismissal.

Progressive employers have for some time been integrating equality and inclusion initiatives into core business functions, such as organisational strategy and talent management programmes. Other organisations are only just beginning their journey to understanding how to apply the well-made case for diversity to their particular workplace. A diverse and inclusive organisation is better equipped to be responsive, rich in ideas and ready for business on a global scale. Developing an inclusive culture results in a more engaged and productive workforce.

Whilst over the last thirty years we have seen considerable expansion in the personal characteristics that are now protected from discrimination, the biggest challenges still to be addressed are unconscious bias and non-inclusive behaviours. This requires a huge amount of self-awareness and a personal behavioural action plan. Most organisations have not shifted from the compliance focused equality awareness training to up-skilling their workforces to operate in increasingly ethnically diverse, global and remotely based teams using technology. Teaching mediation skills helps facilitate people to have conversations in a way that provokes thought and stimulates honest debate. This should also reduce the need to resolve workplace concerns via the traditional adversarial routes that that involve a heavy price for all parties.

So whilst the case has been made for diversity, the tough reality is that by bringing diverse people together without giving them the tools to navigate the possible conflicts and differences of opinion that can arise is like sailing in the dark without a compass.

The Work Foundation event 'Embrace Diversity: Have you recognised the benefits of diversifying your workforce?' is on 25 July 2013.