The benefits of diversity and overcoming biases

Diversity at work is really about learning to build, extend and recognise everyone as people rather than labels or stereotypes. 

Privileging diversity for its own sake?

Sometimes we see an inevitable corrective reaction to years of systemically unfair, often unconscionable behaviours and practices, many of which continue to exist. Here we have one diversity surmounting another in the workplace:

Jackson was well-qualified. He was shortlisted for a diversity officer role in a government organisation but the job went to a candidate from a marginalised community. He later learned there were long-running political cross-currents in the organisation that now opt for positive discrimination. He pitied the successful candidate who would have to navigate fractious waters as other agendas continue to bubble below the surface.

This is when diversity verges on farcical. The great Little Britain line about being “the only gay in the village” is a telling example of what’s now highlighted in some workplaces — the desire to privilege diversity for its own sake, rather than welcome it into the mix along with the many other attributes needed to properly fulfil a job’s requirements, as it could have been all along.

Many companies will argue their primary aim is to deliver a profit, or in the case of not-for-profits or government, to deliver on societal objectives. There is no indicator or evidence that this can only be achieved through exclusive categories or types of people. But has the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction? That ex-Google engineer James Damore believes so but makes a bad, devoid-of-evidence argument regarding women’s under-representation in tech industries. Hot-button arguments like Damore’s all too easily become Trojan horses for those with politically unsavoury agendas. 

Choosing similar people

Many workplaces tend to remain self-referential. So, boofheads tend to select boofheads. Publicity agents favour staff who resemble them. A bespectacled boss of a friend of mine employed a high number of clones wearing glasses. Physical appearance and demeanour notwithstanding, I doubt there’s much diversity in those setups. Flipped, some conscientious-minded outfits exhibit high-handed scorn for those who aren’t ‘sufficiently’ diverse. Neither attitude advances human development.

In the meantime, a better path all companies and organisations could choose includes the following:

1. Rigorous recruitment

Remember and assess the qualifications and experience needed to do the job. That means rigorously examining all contenders in light of what really advances your company or organisation. Ask what you mean by ‘real criteria’, and don’t just draw the line at so-called ‘cultural fit’.

2. ‘Give’ to your people through strong values and mentoring

Positive discrimination is a laudable and a necessary corrective to conscious and unconscious biases, but investment in all staff and newcomers is better. This can be tricky when resources are scarce, but companies that give (e.g. mentoring opportunities) and are clear about strong values usually hit the mark, reputation and largesse-wise.

3. Provide opportunities for individuals

Ensure the training and staff improvement delivered is both personalised as well as on a collective basis — consider people’s individual needs and career progression and make opportunities available to all.

4. Stop bias and favours

Cease with any ‘nod and wink’ attitudes that furtively enable some to gain an unfair advantage over others. 

If we can succeed in transcending labels, strengths become acknowledged, and we evolve into more harmonious, equitable and productive teams. Diversity enhances organisational capacity which enables it to adapt to a wider range of circumstances.

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