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A call to arms for the benefits of diversity

Diversity is under threat. With the vote to leave the EU, Donald Trump’s election in the US and the rise of the Far Right across Europe, the dominant message of today’s world seems to be fear of otherness and worrying protectionism. That narrative means it’s even more important that we as business and people leaders stand up to challenge this thinking. This is a call to arms for the benefits of diversity

Diversity is not about being altruistic. It’s not being benevolent. Difference in the workplace makes our organisations stronger, more creative and more successful. It’s a commercial argument as much as a social or political one.

Truly embedding a culture where diversity is welcomed however is not easy. Too many in our profession focus solely on the compliance agenda, looking at equality and the boxes that need to be ticked. We need to move beyond this to true inclusion and welcoming of difference. Simply aiming to treat people ‘equally’ misses the point, because people are all different. We need to embrace that individuality and start a broader dialogue about inclusion.

Understanding inclusion means appreciating that we are all different. Beyond the social characteristics of gender, race or sexuality, we all have different experiences, approaches to work and behaviours. Having that breadth of approaches and styles in a team is critical for creativity, challenge and innovation. Divergence creates competitive advantage.

Difference in the workplace makes our organisations stronger, more creative and more successful. It’s a commercial argument as much as a social or political one

Of course, you still need some top-down activity and interventions to make sure everyone has access to the same opportunities. It’s a fact that some groups still have a head start. At the University of Sheffield, we call our efforts in this area ‘Diversity by design’. It’s making sure our processes are free from bias, looking at recruitment, development and so on to weed out any risk of homogenous activity.

The harder bit to crack is that sense of consolidating the principle that advocating difference in the workplace and in teams should be promoted and encouraged at local levels. It’s a more nuanced approach, one that is less about projects and instead needs to focus on culture and behaviours. It means challenging through behaviour, so that day-in, day-out that idea of difference as a positive, something which leads to high performance, is built in.

People and HR leaders need to do both these things at once: make sure systems and processes are free from bias and aim to embed a culture where everyone sees striving for difference and inclusion as part of their job. Our role is to redefine a powerful dialogue about why diversity matters, beyond tick-box compliance. It needs to become embedded, part of the line manager’s role and the employment lifecycle, rather than an ‘HR intervention’. We need to put diversity and difference on the business agenda, make it part of the corporate strategy. Now more than ever is the time to bang the drum for diversity and inclusion, taking a firm stand as others seek to undermine its importance.

Andrew Dodman is chief operating officer at the University of Sheffield and a member of The People Space Leadership Board. This article first appeared on The People Space on 8 May 2017

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