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Addressing Objections to Diversity and Inclusion – For Leaders

How to make Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) relevant to everyone in the organisation?

When leaders in organisations start talking about EDI they may often get difficult questions. These questions are based on assumptions, attitudes, or experiences that may not necessarily reflect the current reality. Leaders ought to be able to acknowledge and address those questions and help people progress on their Inclusion journey.

Below we offer some guidance and suggestions on how to address the most common objections.

I. Responding to statements that convey the view that no change is required

Everyone notices characteristics of people—it’s a human reality. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, even if we think we don’t see people’s characteristics, our brain tells us otherwise. Plenty of research shows that we DO see colour, gender, etc. and it manifests itself in unconscious assumptions and beliefs about people based on those characteristics. On the other hand, in order for people to feel included and do their best work, they have to be able to bring their full selves to work, including their identity or background. When differences are seen and valued, it allows people to bring their best self to work.

Moreover, acknowledging and celebrating people’s differences is key to achieving equity and inclusion for all individuals. By ignoring someone’s identity, we are disregarding their unique experiences and cultural backgrounds, which can lead to further marginalisation and othering.

Bias is often unconscious, and bias and discrimination are a reality for many people from underrepresented groups. Although you may not have experienced these issues personally, it’s always good to acknowledge that others may have. Have a conversation with people in the team to seek feedback on how included they feel, and what the team could do to help them feel more included.

As a team leader, you may wish to run an engagement survey or hold focus groups to find out how included people feel. Inclusion is not a one-time achievement, but an ongoing process that requires continuous effort and reflection. It is also worth bearing in mind that inclusive practices benefit not only those who have been historically marginalised, but also the team as a whole. Studies have shown that diverse and inclusive teams are more innovative, make better decisions, and are more productive. By ensuring that everyone feels valued and included, the team can achieve better outcomes and build stronger relationships.

The statement that this is a historical problem is not supported by research into minority groups. We also know people from underrepresented groups continue to feel less engaged, have a lower retention rate, and have a slower rate of career progress. So it is not just a historical problem, and it is something that needs to be addressed to ensure our current people with diverse backgrounds stay engaged, are retained and progress equitably.

II. Responding to statements that convey the feeling that there may be negative consequences of attempts to be inclusive

It’s almost impossible to get it right all the time, especially as our perception of what is ‘right’ changes over time. We are all learning to be more inclusive and that’s okay, no-one is expected to be perfect, especially with something they haven’t done before. Just like with any sport or skill, it takes time and practice to improve. And one thing is certain: we all have the ability to learn and grow, regardless of age. The important thing everyone can try to do is to become more aware that comments and jokes may have a negative impact on someone and to be open to constructive feedback. It’s more about having the conversation, and listening with curiosity to the other person than it is about getting it always right. This will help us build stronger relationships and improve communication with colleagues.

Unfortunately, fairness has never been part of the equation, but maybe not the way you are thinking. It is important to realise that we all are biased in favour of the usual candidates. We don’t work in a meritocracy. Our systems, way of working and way of evaluating what good looks like are favouring those who look and behave like us. The focus of our EDI initiatives needs to be on creating a level playing field where merit and qualifications remain key factors in decision-making processes. Additional effort, support and encouragement is sometimes required to balance a situation that is already unfair.

When hiring for diversity it is vital to make sure people are capable of fulfilling the role. Otherwise, the new hire may well end up underperforming, which will negatively impact any future hires from a similar group. At the same time, it’s also crucial to recognise the value of Diversity. Diversity brings different experiences, perspectives, and ideas to the table, which can enhance our problem-solving abilities and foster innovation. People with a diverse background to most of us tend to also have developed additional qualities that, while not always easy to spot, enhance our teams and work environment. For a fair evaluation of a person’s ‘value add’, these additional advantages need to be added to the more conventional capabilities needed to fulfil the required role.

The best way to ensure this is to add a criterion for selection, ‘Brings a new perspective or quality to the team’. That way it becomes more attractive to hire a candidate with less or different direct experience, as they contribute to the team in other valuable ways, while quickly learning the other aspects of the job.

III. Responding to statements that convey that EDI is difficult or impossible to achieve

It’s difficult to find different people when we do what we have always done. To find candidates who are different from our own dominant group it may be necessary to expand the recruiting pool. We may also need to review hiring practices to ensure that they are inclusive and welcoming to a more diverse pool of candidates. For example, we can avoid using language in job descriptions that may discourage certain groups of applicants, and ensure that the interview process is fair, transparent and unbiased. Think about doing things differently because we know that, to reach a different result we need to change how we do things.

This is not supported by evidence and may be based on gender stereotypes or systemic barriers. By recognising the value of diversity, promoting inclusivity, and creating a welcoming environment, we can attract and retain talented women who are interested in these types of roles.

Whilst it is indeed not easy to change, everyone can learn and grow. In fact, there is new research that shows that, the older we get, the more creative our brains become. So really, age isn’t the issue; it’s about being open to the learning and engaging in the inclusion conversation. Challenging unconscious bias, embracing new perspectives and leading by example will help everyone on the team and lead to better team results.

Having more diverse teams and being more inclusive is imperative to achieve our business mission and vision. It’s not a distraction but a pathway towards achieving business success. By promoting diversity and creating an inclusive environment, we can attract and retain top talent, foster innovation and creativity, and improve decision-making. The world has changed, and we need to change with it to achieve the same results and to maintain our position of leadership in the industry.

Just like any other initiative to improve our business, it does take time and resources but the benefits far outweigh the costs. Failing to promote Diversity and Inclusion can lead to lost productivity, high employee turnover, legal and reputational risks, and missed opportunities as well as overlooked threats. Diverse and inclusive teams, however, will help us grow. By promoting diversity, we can tap into the creativity and unique perspectives of our people, which leads to new and innovative ideas. When people feel included they are more engaged and productive and will be more likely to stay.

When hiring for diversity it is important to assess motivation, skills, and talents required objectively before hiring. When someone does fulfill the requirements, it’s important to create an inclusive environment allowing them to thrive. When a flower doesn’t bloom, we fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower. We may need to learn new skills to help people feel included, may need to offer additional support and resources, and rethink performance metrics. It’s harder to manage a diverse team, and it takes time to learn, but when we do it brings real benefits.

© Voice At The Table Ltd 2023

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