How transparent should we be about diversity?
I must begin with an anecdote from not long ago - It was a fine Friday morning when one of the top performers of the team walked into my colleague’s room sobbing. This gem of a person had an unbeatable record of accomplishment in academics and cracking tough business problems. Yet on that fateful morning, barely three months after joining the team, a resignation letter was handed in. Why?
The team she had been selected for had been placed under a hiring freeze for six months. Suddenly, a new team member arrives. Naturally, the water cooler conversation is not very pleasant. Rumors were quick to fly and everyone reached the conclusion that their new colleague was hired not because she was a deserving candidate, but because she was a girl. Quickly, interactions began to change. For someone who had built her entire life on accolades well deserved, this was the worst form of insult. Between tears, she asked if it was true; if she was indeed hired based on gender vs merit. It did not matter how convincing the answer, she left soon after.
If you have been in the workplace long enough, dig into your treasure trove of memories and it is likely that you discover similar incidents tucked away in some forgotten corner. Examples of discrimination based on gender, nationality, race, color and the like that resulted from poor communication are available in plenty.
The unfortunate fact is that diversity initiatives are a black box to most employees.
Every employee knows that diversity is a key focus area and almost nobody knows what his or her organization is doing about it, unless they maybe read about it in the newspaper or catch a snippet in the company newsletter.
Organizations aren’t necessarily biased, including the one mentioned above. Most have very strong mechanisms in place to ensure that the hiring process (for e.g.) is the same for everyone irrespective of gender or any other criteria. What had changed for this particular organization was the slate representation. They weren’t doing anything wrong; except one thing. COMMUNICATION.
Diversity is a difficult topic to discuss, people talk and they don’t always say the most pleasant things. This is why there exists a need for continuous, open, and honest conversation on how an organization is approaching diversity.
Why aren’t we saying enough?
An organization can come up with many seemingly valid reasons to keep their diversity targets and consequent initiatives under wraps. Most organizations publish a statement on their websites and employee handbooks claiming that they are an equal opportunity employer. This essentially translates into freedom from discrimination based on race, color, gender or any other attribute.
Organizations also participate in affirmative action plans to amend historical wrongs and eliminate present effects of past discrimination. Yet, these areas are sensitive and can be misinterpreted by some as having a quota system in place. Some organizations do put in place internal percentages that they aim to achieve.
The challenge is that while there is plenty of research that talks about the benefits of a diverse workforce, there exists almost no guidance on the ideal percentage composition. There is no research that states that a 50% woman workforce is better than 70% yet some organizations have taken on 50% targets irrespective of whether the candidate pool available reflects the same percentage.
Consider for demonstration purposes an organization located in a country that has a gender split of 70:30 (male: female). When one drills down to the eligible ratio in terms of job qualification, the ratio may look slightly more skewed, say 80:20. Under that environmental constraint, does research says that a 50:50 split is the best composition within the organization?
This is where things get murky. It is possible that an employee may stand up, question how exactly is this ratio to be achieved, and if in pursuit of these ratios, you are violating the claim of being an equal opportunity employer.
A minority group may stand up and ask why this excessive focus on gender, why is an equal emphasis not being laid on having an equal representation of all religions at the workplace? Why is a 33:33:33 ratio (considering only three religions for the sake of argument) not a target? Are then organizations to be run on quota systems? Do you notice how quickly these conversations can spiral out of control?
However, despite all difficulties, I want you to take each of the reasons to not communicate, look at them carefully and throw them into the trash can. There exists no good reason to be opaque regarding something that impacts every individual in the organization. There exists a need for clean, open and honest communication that allows the employees to ask questions.
It is more likely for water cooler conversations to spiral out of control and have a negative impact on the workplace than if you chose to tackle these fears head-on by addressing them. True, you may not have an answer to all questions, but that will just push you harder to find the right answers.
What does one say to address diversity?
I wish there was an easy answer. This question deserves an entire blog post of its own and that will come along soon, I promise; but there are a few things one must keep in mind. The entire focus on diversity is to ensure that we acknowledge and leverage the benefits of diverse perspectives as they lead to better decisions for the organization. There are essentially two ways that this must be dealt with:
(1) By educating everyone on benefits of diversity, inclusivity and conscious/ unconscious biases that one may hold.
(2) By making the workplace more diverse.
The second is measurable and hence more focused upon. Yet, it is this very approach that drives dissent.
What I urge you to do is to focus disproportionately on communication. In an ideal world situation, the organization would be free from biases and recognize people for their contributions without filters of gender, race and the like. However, the world is not ideal and everyone is conditioned from birth to install filters. They exist in me too.
The best way to work to break the filters down is by education.
Talk about why diversity is important and talk about it often. Quote research and put up posters on the wall. Create fun challenges that exposes everyone to the biases they may hold. The more you do, the higher the recall value and more likely the change. This wouldn’t happen overnight though. Change takes time but now is always a good time to start.
No one wants to be told that they got to where they are today because of any reason other than merit. There is an innate need to be recognized for one’s ability vs one’s gender (replace with any other discriminating factor). You may believe that the process is fair but not everyone else does. You owe the employees information on what is going on in their own organization and if they were hired for the right reasons. After all, wouldn’t you want to know?
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Ankita Poddar is an HR professional based out of India. Identified as one of the emerging young HR leaders in India in 2016, Ankita's experience as an HR Business Partner gives her the opportunity to work closely with business leaders, innovate and execute on the behalf of customers especially in areas of people analytics, employee engagement, rewards and recognition and performance management. Ankita blogs about all things HR at https://thehrbpstory.com. You can follow her on Twitter @ankitapoddar.