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Diversity in the workplace: it means more than you think

Published 14th February 2017 by Melissa Farrington
Diverse group of people round a table

Diversity in the workplace is a good thing - you won’t find anyone that disagrees. But it’s about much more than hiring people from underrepresented groups. So what does workplace diversity mean nowadays? When you know that, you can better understand how diversity improves performance.

Workplace diversity is about thriving, not presence

It’s easy to encourage hiring managers to hire more women or ethnic minorities, which increases the overall diversity of the workplace. But diversity is about increasing people's actual participation, not just their symbolic participation.

So is being granted a position in a company enough to actually achieve equal footing? Well, a study out of the University of Michigan found that people hired for ‘diversity purposes’ were sometimes seen as less qualified for the position they were hired for.

This is why we must think about how we can create environments of equal participation. Technology company Slack highlights that while organisations can change hiring practices to increase the number of employees from underrepresented groups, the environment must be conducive to these people thriving, not just being hired.

Diversity is about increasing people's actual participation, not just their symbolic participation.

This could mean taking action on other employees’ unconscious biases, ensuring the hiring process shows transparently how someone has been judged for competency or cultural fit, and creating earlier training opportunities for hires from underrepresented groups.

Workplace diversity is about employee-led optimisation

Diversity is about avoiding ideals around best practice or one-size-fits-all. What works for one person may not work for another. And it might not work all the time, in any case.

That’s why organisations are providing different options and allowing people to self-select into the most appropriate one. Workplace design is a common example. When brainstorming, someone might want to be with trusted colleagues to sense check ideas. When writing a report, they’ll be more effective relocating to a quieter corner of the office.

Personality traits come into play: introverts may need quieter space earlier in the day to ‘recover’ from extensive interaction.

In this sense, diversity is about employees recognising where they thrive and the organisation providing the resources that allow them to self-select because they know all employees are different.

Workplace diversity is about organisational performance

There’s no shortage of research that suggests diversity of thought and opinion, or being around people who are different to us, makes us more creative, diligent and hard-working.

Another study suggested diversity is essential if organisations want to create cultures of sustainable innovation, often cited as a key factor in whether organisations will thrive in the modern, rapidly-changing world.

Finally, a respected study by Dezsö and Ross (2012) found that “female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value.”

Workplace diversity is about everyone, not just the underrepresented

This is important for two reasons. Firstly, although research suggests that overall diversity increases creativity and performance, there can be negatives, including discomfort and greater interpersonal conflict.

By focusing narrowly on underrepresented groups, we focus on their own integration, rather than the functional wellbeing of whole groups, and by doing this these underrepresented groups can actually thrive less because of others’ actions and beliefs towards them.

In a truly diverse team, everyone is an individual, and we must recognise how they can bring their very best to work, feel comfortable in their own skin, and work with other very different people to create something better than they could do on their own.

Workplace diversity is about recognising and celebrating difference

Cultural integration has been a key goal of organisations for some time, developing a common purpose and hiring people who will thrive under the established purpose and values.

One problem is that the more diverse an organisation gets, the greater range of viewpoints, motivations, desires and beliefs you’ll find, and the harder it can be to unite people under a common purpose.

In a truly diverse team, everyone is an individual, and we must recognise how they can bring their very best to work.

When asked what workforce characteristics would require the greatest change in HR strategies over the next three years, 60% of HR executives responding to an Economist Intelligence Unit study cited employees’ lack of interest in assimilating organizational values. A further 50% pointed to conflicting values across a multigenerational workforce

Diversity is about recognising that we all succeed in different ways and as long as we are contributing, we don’t all have to contribute in the same way. A devoted father may stop work strictly at 5:30 to spend time with his son. An ambitious graduate may work into the evening. Neither takes a ‘better’ approach: they are just different, and both can be as efficient as the other.