True diversity in the workplace
WRITER: Carole Lydon
ILLUSTRATOR: Storm Warman
Flip through any business magazine and you will find an article or two on workplace diversity; the premise that the workforce should reflect the natural diversity of the population. You might also be familiar with the setting of targets for the employment of various groups within our population and the reality that targets alone just don’t work.
The business case for workforce diversity is fairly straightforward. An organisation that manages diversity consciously, stands to benefit from improved creativity, innovation and problem-solving, which all feed into better decision-making. A diverse workforce can help you tap into and communicate with different markets, and build a reputation as an employer of excellence. But if it were that easy, our equal opportunity commissioners wouldn’t be as busy as they are.
Professor Cheri Ostroff, UniSA Business School’s Chair in Management, challenges the traditional notion that simply adding more diversity is better, “When you focus on the patterns of interactions among people, you start to see that too much diversity can be damaging. There is likely an optimum level of diversity that creates psychological safety by being around similar people, but allows for enough different perspectives to introduce creativity and innovation.”
It is possible that too much diversity can lead to a lack of cohesion in the workplace and high staff turnover. Which begs the question, ‘How does an organisation identify its optimum level of diversity?’ The answer, it would seem, is that it needs to forget the targets for a moment and go back to the very beginning to consider whether diversity is one of its core business values, and whether the culture, climate and human resource practices signal that diversity is valued.
An early indicator of an organisation’s approach to diversity is how it manages recruitment. Business growth relies on a number of things, but surely at the top of the list is finding and utilising the best possible talent. Pro Vice Chancellor (Business and Law) at the UniSA Business School, Professor Marie Wilson, has conducted considerable research into conscious and unconscious bias during the recruitment process, noting recently that job seekers are increasingly changing their names to make it through the first round of selection. Wilson suggests that it’s time to recalibrate our recruitment processes to ensure that only qualifications and experience are used as initial assessors.
Even so, many large corporates and government departments that have diligently recruited to meet diversity targets know all too well that recruitment is only a small part of the picture. It doesn’t matter how many positions you fill if you can’t retain the people.
Many still argue that targets are essential for change to occur. In April, Anne Gale, South Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commissioner, co-hosted a gathering of the nation’s human rights commissioners at the UniSA Business School and believes that the value of a target lies in its capacity to measure progress, signal a problem and prompt reflection. According to Gale, “If reflection uncovers the truth that an organisation’s culture is limiting positive change, then work can begin on a more welcoming culture to take its place. Unless an organisation is truly welcoming, supportive and inclusive, the talent will not stay.”
“We are now experiencing two significant federal policy changes that will change disability entitlements and raise the retirement age. In these examples alone, a massive cultural shift is required that values workers with a disability and older workers. The way that employers respond to these and other federal policies around migration and Indigenous employment will have a direct effect on the success of our communities,” says Gale.
Looking at disability alone, approximately 20% of the Australian workforce has some form of disability, yet they represent only 2% of the public service. Anecdotal evidence from South Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commission suggests that many issues are worked out at mediation because employers didn’t realise how easy, cost effective and rewarding it can be to accommodate a disabled worker. Perhaps the most salient question posed at the UniSA Business School panel discussion was, “Are we teaching our young disabled people to aspire and thrive, or simply to survive.” If they grow up in culture that does not respect and welcome them into the workforce, they will only ever pitch their dreams at survival.
Challenges in foreign ownership
Imagine coming to Australia from a vastly different culture and being asked to manage teams of local employees. Professor Ying Zhu, Director of UniSA Business School’s Australian Centre for Asian Business has conducted considerable research into the challenges faced by Chinese companies operating overseas and in Australia. In his new book on Chinese companies operating in Australia, Professor Zhu examines cross-cultural management from Chinese and Australian perspectives. “Chinese workers have a completely different approach to work. It is based on loyalty and gratitude, personal relationships (guanxi), reciprocity and face-saving (mianzi).
Just by saving face, Chinese managers can inadvertently let problems accumulate leading to more serious confrontation later on. However, in Australia, even when Chinese managers grow to understand the Australian business environment, a centralised business model with headquarters and all human resource and financial decisions made in China, makes it difficult for them adapt their approach.” Challenges for managing diversity in the workforce can come from any angle. Foreign ownership of companies undoubtedly creates more challenges in the area of diversity management.
For optimal workforce diversity that benefits employers and employees, all roads lead to business leaders. At every level of an organisation from CEO through to line managers, all leaders must reinforce the value of diversity to create a welcoming workplace. This is a fundamental tenet of organisational culture. Leaders must be advocates and mythbusters. Leadership teams must build diversity into the values of the organisation. Senior leaders must be prepared to coach line managers in managing diversity as a positive business driver. Talking the talk isn’t enough, everyone must walk the walk.
According to Jane Kittel, General Manager Customer Experience and Contacts Centres for Westpac, there is inherent value in building a workforce that is representative of its customers, particularly when your business is service-oriented.
“We believe that diversity affects the whole community,” says Kittel. “We have a responsibility to help break down barriers and reduce stigma by addressing how our employees, customers and the community can achieve their full potential. To achieve this we have some clear areas of focus – we strive to have 50% of women in leadership by 2017, we encourage greater disclosure and advancement for our Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex community, we recruit and harness the potential of Indigenous employees, we maximise contributions of mature age employees, we encourage greater accessibility disclosure and promote workplace flexibility.
“Our commitment to driving a culture of diversity across the business is one of the many reasons I am personally proud to work for Westpac. It’s incredible to see the benefits of having such a diverse workforce come to life around me every day.”
Managing the financial bottom line is second nature. Managing a sustainable environmental bottom line is becoming second nature. The next aspect of the social bottom line that must be addressed is diversity. When the myths are dispelled, organisations will realise that diversity is not only easy to understand but becomes much easier to manage when it is one of your business drivers.
Anne Gale is the South Australian Equal Opportunity Commissioner. In April, Anne co-hosted a panel event on workplace diversity with the Centre for Human Resource Management.
Jane Kittel is General Manager Customer Experience and Contacts Centres for Westpac. She is also a graduate of the UniSA Business School.
Professor Marie Wilson is the Pro Vice Chancellor (Business and Law) at the UniSA Business School. Her specialty areas in research, teaching and practice are the management of performance, with a focus on professionals and knowledge work.
Professor Cheri Ostroff is a Chair in Management at the UniSA Business School. Her research interests include diversity, organisational culture and climate, and human resource management systems.
Professor Ying Zhu is Director of the Australian Centre for Asian Business and a Professor at the UniSA Business School. His forthcoming book,Managing Chinese Outward Foreign Direct Investment: From Entry Strategy to Sustainable Development in Australia, co-authored with Charlie Huang, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan (London and New York).