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Thought piece: Diversity and Inclusion

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Alex Bigland

It’s a much-used word but what actually is diversity? Boiled down to its essentials, diversity is the conscious taking account of the differences between people or groups of people and regarding those differences in a positive light. To protect diversity, there needs to be equality, meaning that anyone who falls into a ‘diverse’ category is given an equal opportunity and is not treated differently or discriminated against, especially in the workplace. Diversity is broad-ranging, covering age, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, education and national origin. So broad in fact, that essentially every single one of us can be viewed as bringing some form of diversity to our workplace in one way or other.

Why is Diversity & Inclusion important?

However negative stereotyping means those differences are not always seen as a positive or welcome and leads to people being excluded. Which is what makes diversity and inclusion such an important topic. Everyone should have the right to feel valued and respected for who they are and to develop, progress and be recognised and rewarded at work. That not only makes for an inclusive work environment but as many companies are beginning to recognise, it also has the potential for increasing productivity, which in turn has a positive impact on the bottom line. Companies are seeing that the more diverse and inclusive their workforce is, the more positive benefits there are, such as a greater talent pool to hire from, more creativity and difference of thought processes in the business improved retention figures and brand reputation. In fact, according to McKinsey &Company’s ‘Delivering through Diversity’ report, businesses with a healthy number of men and women are 21% more likely to outperform their competitors and if they have a good mix of ethnic backgrounds, they are 33% more likely to outperform their competitors. A definite incentive to embrace diversity.

Where to start? For a company to achieve diversity, it needs to hire diverse candidates but to do this successfully might be harder than it first appears. We are all programmed with natural unconscious biases and these can be a direct hindrance to diverse hiring.

Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is the unknowing or unintentional prejudice which is hardwired into our brains and happens without us even being aware that we are doing it. It is nurtured by an individual’s background, cultural environment and personal experiences and can take a number of different forms such as basing your opinion on a set of stereotypes rather than experience, or thinking all the qualities of a person are good just because you like them, or trying to adapt your opinion to fit the views of a wider group that you want to belong to. We all do it and it’s hard to catch because it is done with very little thought but when it comes to hiring it’s crucial to try and limit its impact otherwise the hiring patterns in your organisation will never change.

Anyone involved in the hiring process needs to be aware that they will operate with unconscious bias. The more self-awareness someone can have of their potential biases the more likely that person is to limit their biases getting in the way of making a more diverse hire for their team. Training sessions for anyone taking part in hiring is a great way to raise awareness of unconscious bias and exploring techniques for combatting it.

The power of words

Unconscious bias can creep in before the candidate has even been met. The wording of a job spec can put groups of people off straight away. If you think about it, when you are required to put together a list of the qualities that you need, you are likely to think about the qualities that you already have existing in the team without considering what you might lack by limiting the specification to those qualities. The language used can also unwittingly deter a broad range of suitable applicants applying to a vacancy. Studies have been conducted into the correlation of language used in specs and the number of female applicants and the results have shown that women will be deterred by language such as ‘superstar’, ‘self-confident’, ‘driven’ ‘fearless’. It should be pointed out that this works equally in reverse and roles that require more male applicants should try and steer clear of words like ‘considerate’, ‘empathy’, ‘interdependent’. Gender decoders are useful tools and we use them for all our internal roles. They make us think twice about words describing qualities that are often considered ‘essential’ in a sales environment and perhaps they’ve played a part in helping us to be a 50/50 split of men and women. Bear in mind that deterrent language is not just about gender; does the position really require a university education or ‘lots of energy’ (implying that only young people need apply) or might that be unconscious bias creeping in?

Other ways of reaching a larger candidate pool at the hiring stage include considering the use of a broad number of job boards. The broader your reach, the wider the talent pool that you can access. There might be a higher number of unsuitable applicants to sift through, but it’s worth it if you find a better hire out of the process.

The interview

Using competency-based interview questions and a balanced scorecard can help iron out unconscious bias at the interview stage. Their use ensures better objectivity in the process and removes personal bias in decision making. This is important as it is easy for a hiring manager who meets a candidate that has different cultural experiences or values to think that this person won’t be a good ‘cultural fit’ for their team, when in fact this different way of thinking or experiences may, in fact, bring qualities needed to change the team for the better.

Beyond hiring

It’s not just the hiring that will change diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Ensuring an equal opportunities policy is in place, which everyone is aware of and buys into – looking at how work-life balance is addressed (no flexibility means that a company could be missing out on a rich seam of talent). “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it” is often quoted in the context of diversity. Of course, it helps the attraction process if people can see other people in the company that they identify with, we all naturally seek our herd and want to blend in but change has to start somewhere, one step at a time and there will always be someone who is first through the door. The important part is that they are welcomed and made to feel a part of something positive.