05 Jul 2016 19:58 IST

Diversity at workplace

Diversity should be seen less as a burden and more as a business requirement and leadership challenge

“In our company, women don’t really have a problem when it comes to pay hikes and promotions.” Aparna and her friend were discussing discrimination against women at the workplace. They were attending a training programme and were chatting during lunch break.

“I think we are at par with our male colleagues in these matters. One reads about a lot of issues like sexual harassment and other serious crimes against women. Fortunately, we haven’t faced them here. There are just about 4 per cent women in our company but, being an engineering firm, I guess it is normal. My real problem is that I don’t find anyone to chat with. I do speak in male majority groups at times, but there are issues which I wish to discuss with women colleagues that I can’t talk about here. It is a matter of choice, I guess. It can be hard for someone like me,” Aparna added.

It is human nature to bond together in ways that feel comforting or that give an advantage. By that logic, it is natural to feel suspicious or antagonistic towards those who don’t belong to one’s group.

Which is why there are diversity and inclusion policies and laws — to avoid discrimination and protect those in a minority.

The differences

Tensions, conflicts and discrimination are more likely to occur when people from different backgrounds work together. They can happen even among a relatively homogeneous workforce — haven’t you seen vociferous arguments between developers and marketers, or between production and quality assurance departments?

People who have different mother tongues speak differently, even if they are conversing in a common language like English or Hindi. People with different life experiences may find it difficult to relate to each other. Put a war veteran and a freshly minted MBA in a team, and you may have friction about such things as how to stand or speak. Not just that, a war veteran is more likely to be alive to risks in business situations than the young graduate is.

One can think about diversity along many dimensions, such as gender, race, religion, ethnicity, language, age, or nationality. One can go beyond such dimensions and think in terms of knowledge and skill-sets, life experiences, professions or occupations, locations, economic status and beliefs.

Organisations must meet legal and regulatory criteria on diversity. And instead of treating it as a compliance burden, they need to look at the business case for diversity.

Permanent brainstorming

The business case for employing people from diverse backgrounds is simple — people from different backgrounds think differently; they observe differently. Ideally, a diverse workplace is expected be in a permanent brainstorming mode.

In such an environment, people’s biases become evident. While diversity in group can mean taking longer to close a discussion, you can be assured of making better quality decisions. Diversity improves the ability of an organisation to sense changes in environment and respond accordingly. It can also help the company lead a change.

A little bit of this and that

If you are developing a new product, don’t restrict the team composition to only developers and marketers. Try to include a field support person as well. Try including someone who potentially thinks like your to-be customers and vendors.

And being in a global business means diversity in teams isn’t a matter of choice.

If you wish to promote ‘out of the box thinking’ or innovation, diversity in your teams will be a definite plus. However, despite the obvious advantages that build a good business case, diversity at workplaces hasn’t improved much.

Little progress

US companies spend millions of dollars annually on their diversity and inclusion programmes, and yet, Silicon Valley has an overwhelmingly white, male workforce. Corporate India too has initiatives that promote diversity, but most companies have a fairly homogeneous staff.

So why is it that companies lag in developing a workforce that has a good mix of people from different backgrounds? Well, compulsion seems to be one of the main reasons.

Studies show that diversity programmes born out of compulsion are usually run to save the company from litigation or legal hassles. In such cases, the minority or disadvantaged groups don’t necessarily feel encouraged or valued, while the majority feels discriminated against.

Challenges of diversity

But while diversity has its share of positives, in terms of out of the box thinking and new perspectives, it is, in no way, a silver bullet. It poses its share of challenges.

1) It needs both empathy and understanding towards people from different backgrounds. Those in decision-making positions must have this trait.

2) More effort needs to be put into communications, and to reach a common, shared view.

3) People must also moderate their behaviour and language in a diverse group — this can be quite taxing.

4) Leaders, especially, have to make a special effort to enlist diverse views, record them, sort, evaluate, and synthesise them into shared view and action plan. They need to show better transparency so everyone feels that they have been heard.

Diversity should be seen as a business requirement and a leadership challenge.