Personal attributes irrelevant to a person’s capacity to deliver in a role should never play a part in determining the opportunities and benefits they receive, and yet all too often they do. The fact is far too many business decisions continue to be made for reasons entirely unrelated to qualifications, capability or work performance.
It’s an unfortunate reality that discrimination continues to be a serious issue experienced by many working Australians. A recent Human Rights Commission study for example found widespread discrimination against pregnant women. The report found 49 per cent of pregnant women and working mothers experienced discrimination both in the corporate world and the public service.
The fight of women for greater equality at work is far from the only diversity challenge we face. Young Australians are struggling to establish their careers. Unemployment of people aged 15 to 24 is more than double the national average. Older workers are also battling as many employers continue to overlook the value of their experience. People from culturally diverse backgrounds face prejudice from those who deny them fair and equal opportunity.
While of course fairness and integrity are reasons enough to strive for change, the influence diversity can have on an organisations performance provides compelling reason also. Great leaders understand the limitations of building teams of people who think, feel and behave alike. Equally they see the lost opportunity inherent in ‘sameness’. They appreciate difference and strive to bring diverse groups of people together.
Teams made up of people from diverse backgrounds are more likely to bring a breadth of knowledge, skills and experience that improves the results they are able to achieve.
People with differing perspectives and ideas engaging in healthy, robust debate can have a profound impact on what a team and business is able to achieve. Innovation, agility and problem solving are examples of team capabilities that can be strengthened through diversity.
Seven steps a leader can take to build and leverage a diverse workforce include:
- Develop awareness: Understand that we all have the potential to hold biases, whether we are aware of them or not. Recognising our own biases is the first step toward being able to mitigate their influence. Reflect carefully on biases you may hold and the influence they have on decisions you make.
- Commit to change: Strive to build a diverse workforce that includes people with differences in age, culture, race, religion, marital status, education, abilities, and gender. Understand that diversity means more than merely accepting people from different groups. It means managing and integrating their varied lifestyles, beliefs and needs into the way you lead your team.
- Recognise current reality: Reflect on the diversity of your team; contemplate why you have brought together this particular group of people. Do you think you could have done anything differently to create a more diverse group?
- Review your employment practices: Contemplate whether or not diversity is enabled or hindered by the way you go about recruiting, managing, developing and engaging with people. For example:
- Are you or other leaders in your business closed minded to flexible work options?
- Do recruitment consultants present you with a diverse range of candidates to choose from?
- Does your selection criteria exclude some groups such as younger or older workers?
- Look for bias in the way you screen resumes, conduct interviews and select candidates, onboard new staff, appraise performance, identifying high performers, develop and promote people.
- Ask & Listen: Talk to your team about any hidden bias and unfairness they have witnessed or experienced. Regularly explore the insights of your team to ensure you maintain a workplace environment free of discrimination and other destructive attitudes and behaviours.
- Educate: Show people how to identify bias and what to do when they witness or experience it. Help people also to grow their own level of tolerance for difference and ability to build strong relationships with a diverse range of people.
- Accountability: Leady by example and take responsibility for mitigating the influence of your own biases. Ask other people to reflect also on their behaviour and expect them to share responsibility for eliminating discrimination from your workplace.