Understanding the fine nuances of inclusion, equality and diversity in the modern workplace is challenging. In this blog post, diversity and inclusion expert (and 2019 MBE) Joanna Abeyie explores the differences between each element and how they relate to all workplaces.
What Does Diversity Look Like in the Modern Workplace?
Let’s start by addressing some of the misconceptions around diversity.
Diversity has become a bit of a buzzword. When I started talking about this topic over 12 years ago, I preferred to use the term ‘under-represented’, as this more accurately reflected the issues that businesses were trying to remedy.
We’re saying that we want everyone’s differences to be represented—whether it’s accent, region, or the ability to speak three languages. It’s about recognizing there are different individuals out there and looking at how we connect with them to make sure products serve them too.
What we find now is that diversity has almost become a buzzword used to describe a protected characteristic, whether it’s ethnicity or gender. A typical sentence that a recruitment firm may hear back from a client is “we had a shortlist of talent, but they all looked the same—there was no diversity.”
Diversity Is as Much About an Individual’s Experience as It Is Their Background
You can have two people who would be classified as diverse by their protected characteristics but have actually trodden a similar life path – same social class, education, similar job roles, etc.
Just because two people look different, doesn’t mean you’ll get diversity in opinion. A common misconception is to bracket white males as the majority, and everyone else as diverse. And yes, historically there is privilege that goes hand-in-hand with being white.
But the point here is that there are still assumptions that are made based on physical appearance that skew how we look at diversity. Within the white male demographic there are huge variances in background, and therefore the diversity of opinions and experiences are huge. You only have to consider class—and how under-represented white working-class males are at a higher education level—to appreciate the diversity within just that one demographic.
It’s not dismissing these elements to history, but acknowledging that class is as big a representation issue as any. So when we refer to ‘talent pools’, this could apply to any definition of diversity, whether that’s by one of the nine protected characteristics protected under the UK Equality Act 2010, or by experience or background.
While there’s arguably an increase in awareness of the importance of diversity within the workplace, businesses need to move their thinking away from ‘it’s a nice to have’ and make it central to their working culture. Too often we see businesses adopt a short-term focus on diversity in response to specific issues. Or latching onto the coattails of days such as International Women’s Day, Black History Month, or Pride.
What Does Inclusion Mean in the Modern Workplace?
When we talk about inclusivity in the workplace, we’re talking about making everyone feel like they belong and are valued in that environment. If you link diversity with attracting and recruiting the right people, then you could say that being inclusive is how you embed values into a culture in a way that lets diversity flourish. If this doesn’t happen, you soon see people looking for jobs elsewhere.
The first step to assessing inclusivity is about looking at processes and asking ‘Who are we eliminating?’
Making this assessment can be hard to do if everyone is from the same background. That’s called institutional blindness and it happens all the time. The difficulty when it comes to businesses looking at diversity is that there’s no list of rights and wrongs. The phrase ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ rings true. One way to think about this is to flip it and consider what exclusion looks like.
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Here are three examples from my work with clients where we have looked at processes and uncovered exclusion:
Case Study #1: Restrictive Application Processes
I worked with a client in the sports sector that required employees to have a degree. Everyone there had a similar background, so having a degree was the norm. But this requirement inadvertently excluded a huge number of people who may have had the experience required for the role.
Case Study #2: It’s Not Just ‘HR Processes’ That Can Exclude
A client in the creative sector asked for a review of their application process for an ‘access card’ designed to enhance inclusion for disabled people.
The application process set unrealistic demands that effectively excluded the very people they wanted to apply. The process involved visiting five different locations within a week, with a written submission to be made on the last day.
When reviewing the process, the following exclusions were found:
- Location visits required flights – accessible airlines with wheelchair space are limited, restricting both the number of flights available and choice of destinations
- A personal assistant would be required – increasing the cost of carrying out the work and therefore the budget set out for this business was unrealistic
- The short deadline for the written submission would require working through the night and, for anyone, would be an unreasonable request.
Case Study #3: Incentives That Do the Very Opposite
Another area to consider is around incentives. A good incentive will be personalized for the individual, yet often they can inadvertently exclude people. Dress codes can alienate, especially black-tie events where this may be enforced. If an individual identifies as non-binary they may simply not attend.
Incentives based on drinking culture are another prime example. It doesn’t take ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ levels of debauchery for incentives to start excluding individuals. Some people simply don’t drink – that could be for religious or faith-based reasons, they could be family-orientated, in recovery or simply have reservations over health concerns.
Better alternatives are available that won’t exclude individuals. Money or bonus-based incentives have the option to both motivate and reward individuals in a way that they see fit. Or simply ask employees how they would like to be rewarded.
What Does Equality Mean in the Modern Workplace?
Equality is about making sure that opportunities are equal and available to everyone. It often boils down to transparency over how people are chosen for opportunities.
Equity is just as important. By ‘equity’ we mean being fair and impartial, ensuring everyone, irrespective of background or experience, has all they need to be successful.
Case Study #4: Don't Assume Your Processes Are Inclusive
Consider the statement: ‘all of our jobs are on the website, so it’s completely impartial and transparent. Talent apply via the website and the best applicants progress through the application process’.
This approach assumes that the website is a platform that offers equity from the start. What if the website isn’t accessible? What if the job role will only be found by certain keywords through a Google search—and what if these keywords exclude people without the right ‘vocabulary’?
Equality only works if people start from the same place. But seeing as this isn’t the case, we need to think about equity and arm everyone with the things they need to be successful.
The Equality Act 2010 legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society, emphasizing the nine characteristics where protection is particularly required.
As a concept, when it comes to equality in the workplace, it’s always worth considering it in line with respect and tolerance.
It’s not about taking from one person (or group) and giving to another. An inclusive workplace isn’t about trying to force people to change their mind on things that they inherently believe in. From a human rights perspective, everyone is free to have their own views and opinions—as long as it’s within the law.
It’s about a balance of respect. We may not agree with a colleague’s lifestyle choices but seeing the value they bring to the business and their skillset should be what matters in a workplace environment. The point of respect is highlighted below.
Case Study #5: You Don't Have to Change Your Views to Be Respectful
A colleague didn’t wish to attend an LGBTQ Pride celebration. The response from management was to name and shame. They addressed an email to him that included all of his colleagues, questioning why he didn’t attend. This approach can cause isolation and is not the arena to address this issue.
Being respectful and fair in the workplace doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with each other’s beliefs. It should mean that bias or personal views shouldn’t hinder decisions on promotions, opportunities, equity, or inclusion.
Defining equality is hard because it looks different everywhere you go. Cultural norms and viewpoints can vary massively by territory, but the fundamental underlying principles of respect and tolerance of other peoples’ views can apply whatever the location.