Diversity; vive la difference

Definition:
• the state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness
• variety; multiformity

Diversity has become something of a business buzzword and as such has attracted attention, created policies and guidelines and even established organisations specialised in promoting its inherent virtues. At the highest level this is a little confusing because, if you simply take the definitions above at face value, then there is a simple truth. We are all different, none of us are exactly alike and variety is a simple truism.

So why the big issue and how does this affect you and your business?
To quote from the National Centre For Diversity:
“Diverse means different. We are all different, therefore diversity includes us all.”

“There never were in the world two opinions alike, no more than two hairs or two grains; the most universal quality is diversity”
Michel de Montaigne

Diversity in the workplace addresses the subject from the perspective that in a global marketplace, a company that employs a diverse workforce, meaning both sexes, multiple age groups, varied ethnic and racial groups and such like, is better able to consider the details, demands and demographics of the market, and is thus better equipped to succeed.
As a business person this makes consummate sense because if we are only employing one specific type of resource and addressing only one specific section of the community, then our chances for expansion and growth are inherently restricted. Typically, however, application of the principle has associated benefits and challenges.

Diversity is beneficial to both the organisation and its stakeholders (you, your customers, your shareholders, your community etc). It potentially allows for substantial benefits such as better decision making and improved problem solving by encouraging creativity and innovation. The variety of diverse inputs naturally creates a wider range of potential outputs and results. This is particularly relevant, but not exclusively so, when considering product development and marketing to different customers and market sectors.

By embracing diversity in an organisation you can:
• help link the variety of talents within the organisation
• allow for those employees with these talents to feel needed and have a sense of belonging, which in turn increases their commitment to the company and
• allow each of them to contribute in a unique way
• provide your company with the ability to understand and
compete in global markets.

“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.”
Malcolm Forbes

Companies that embrace and utilise diversity have the potential to be more successful as long as there are appropriate and inclusive methods of communication within them. This becomes clear when we understand that people from different cultures, backgrounds, age groups and even personalities perceive messages in different ways. Poor communication within any environment has the potential to compound normal operational challenges, but in a diverse workplace it could present even greater challenges.

There are many challenges which face culturally diverse workplaces, and a major challenge is mis-communication within the organisation:

• native and non-native speakers are exposed to the same messages, but may interpret the information differently
• cultural and behavioural differences may require to be integrated and assimilated into the company

There is a final perspective on diversity that would like to consider; that of quality. When I worked in corporate world the company that I worked for prided itself on being “equal opportunity”. It stated that it recruited irrespective of race, creed, colour, gender. Inevitably, the numbers never quite stacked up. There was a reasonable representation of women in the workplace but mainly in administration, training and the canteen! There were only 3 female engineers and no senior management. After a few years away, I re-joined in a different division and the balance was a little more healthy with women in more sales and marketing roles, accounts and IT; only one in senior management. The “cultural” mix of the company in no way reflected the mix within our society but the “equal opportunity” message was still trumpeted from the towers of power. I have two observations that may well provide some justification, or at least explanation for this.

Firstly, equal opportunity means just that. I do not agree with forced equality. Quotas mask the issue. Recruitment and promotion to keep the numbers balanced is ill-advised and pointless. Ensuring that opportunity and development are available for all members of our community should be the duty and intent of every socially-focussed entrepreneur.
Secondly, it is about value, attitude and behaviour NOT gender, race or colour. One of my little quips in these times was that the company was in fact an equal opportunity employer but it had taken the principle one step too far – it recruited irrespective of ability too! Business has a social duty but it cannot support that duty effectively by employing staff to meet quotas to the detriment of the overall performance of the team and the business. We all have a personal responsibility to invest in and develop ourselves. If we are not genuinely good enough on take on a role with all the rigours and challenges then we should not get the job. Simple as that.

My view is that IF you are good enough, you are good enough, and if not, then no balancing of quotas (gender, race, ethnicity or whatever) should be allowed to corrupt or falsely achieve “balance”. As leaders and entrepreneurs we should ensure that the opportunities exist, that assessment is fair and that the support is available, other than that it’s up to you as an individual. Make sure that you are good enough. Make sure that you invest in yourself.

I am pro-diversity with a passion and I am ante-discrimination – positive or negative. Diversity is natural. Embrace it, use it, and benefit from it. Vive la difference!

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