Workplace diversity – a box-ticking exercise?
Irish business leaders agree that workplace diversity is a key to performance, but they are reluctant to invest in initiatives. One in three spends less than €1,000 a year on such ventures.
A lot of companies make a lot of noise about being employers committed to diversity and boasting an inclusive work environment. But do workplace diversity programmes really work or are they simply a box-ticking exercise?
According to an article published by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) last year, diversity programmes aren’t actually increasing diversity. The article points to a disappointing lack of progress on the diversity of employees in management positions in US companies, despite investment in diversity training.
“Even in Silicon Valley, where many leaders tout the need to increase diversity for both business and social justice reasons, bread-and-butter tech jobs remain dominated by white men,” the HBR article notes.
While there’s a general consensus on the merits of a more diverse workforce, the issue is often the strategy used to reach that objective. According to the HBR article, many companies see little progress on diversity because they take the wrong approach and fail to engage staff.
So how can companies ensure they introduce a diversity programme with real merit? And why should they try?
Diversity a key driver
“There is any amount of global research that supports diversity and inclusion as a key driver in having success in new markets, improving market share and ultimately driving revenue and profitability. The business case for diversity and inclusion is in fact very strong,” says Olivia McEvoy, director and head of diversity and inclusion advisory services at professional services firm EY Ireland.
“Diversity and inclusion is a key driver of innovation and high-performing teams, harnessing the power of different experiences, thinking styles and personality types, and enhancing team performance and collaboration,” she adds.
Irish business leaders believe that diversity in the workplace is important, according to the findings of a study published earlier this year by EY Ireland.
Of the business leaders surveyed, 94 per cent said diversity and inclusion were vital for business performance, while 97 per cent said it was key for talent acquisition and retention.
But are Irish businesses acting on their ideas? The research suggests not.
“The survey revealed a disconnect between the importance companies place on diversity and inclusion as a business imperative and their actions and actual work practices,” according to McEvoy.
For example, she says that just over one in three Irish business leaders said their company spends less than €1,000 per year on diversity initiatives.
Peter Cosgrove, a director at recruitment firm CPL, believes that diversity needs to be understood as a benefit for organisations, “otherwise it can become a tick-box exercise”.
“Your customers come from all walks of life, so would you not want to have a similar mix in your company to understand them,” Cosgrove explains.
“One of the biggest challenges is accessing talent – having very few women at the senior level is just ignoring 50 per cent of the world’s population,” he says. “From a data point of view, it is kind of like saying ‘we won’t hire anyone with brown hair’.”
Engaging staff is the key to a meaningful diversity programme, he says.
“To engage people you need to make an emotional connection,” Cosgrove adds. “While people often don’t see the unfair practices in their own company, if you talked to them personally about their wife, daughter, sister and so on, and asked them how they would feel if they were treated unfairly, you get a very different response. So you need to engage with people emotionally and make it personal to them.”
Committing to a diversity strategy is crucial for modern companies, according to McEvoy.
“The fact is that integrating diversity and inclusion into business strategy is no longer a ‘nice to have’. It is a ‘must’ if companies want to compete for the best and most engaged talent,” she says.