Senior leaders recognise that employees are better engaged and productive when an organisation is more diverse and inclusive. Not only does it make sound business sense, but it creates a working environment that enriches and helps retain the workforce.

How businesses achieve and maintain that diversity can be more problematic though.

Julian Goldsmith, Senior Relationship Manager, at Criticaleye, says that senior leaders should see diversity as being core to their organisation. 
“Leaders should ensure that they are using all the resources available to maximum effect, and that includes people, so they need to create the conditions that enable everyone to be at their best. 
“That will mean embracing the debate around gender and ethnicity, but also extending it, particularly as the working population changes and people staying in work longer.” 
Eimear Meredith-Jones, Managing Director, Talent & Organisation Strategy at Accenture, says there are three themes that must be included in any diversity programme: bold leadership; comprehensive action that roots out and tackles any problems that may exist; and an empowering environment where people are rewarded for who they are and where difference is acknowledged and accepted. Ultimately this helps unleash a workforce’s potential.

“We already know organisations that create wonderful employee experiences outperform others and that those with highly engaged employees are 21 percent more profitable than those without. There are multiple business cases that show an increase in diversity results in increased productivity and profitability.

“It’s about having that psychologically safe environment where organisations can say ‘we recognise and respect who you are, and we want you to be your best’.”

Leading from the Top

Richard Stokes, Global Reward and HR Technology Director at Aggreko, says: “The environment has to be one where difference is valued. That commitment should come ultimately from a CEO and his or her team. Buy-in at the top will lead to traction throughout the business.

“Clear, well thought out and consistent policies and processes are paramount. Reviewing diversity in your organisation forces you to consider things you may not have addressed for some time.”

The impetus for change at the top is a crucial element but the make-up of the SLT and the Board can also act as a yardstick for the rest of the business. Sandy Stash, Non-executive Director at Diversified Gas & Oil, says if a Board displays diversity, then there is greater moral authority when addressing issues further down the business.

“People always look upwards,” she says. “If women and minorities look at the Board and see a group of men, it doesn’t reflect well.

“Assuming that you fix the Board and the exec team has a level of diversity, the Board then needs to probe deeper. It’s about ensuring the top talent that is in the pipeline, poised to rise in the company, is diverse.”

For Kate Thornton, former Chief Customer Officer at Simplyhealth, it’s about visibility throughout the organisation.

“There is something powerful about visibility – making sure that people of all persuasions are visible in an organisation – and about creating a culture where people genuinely feel listened to and respected. When they voice their views, they want to know they’re being heard.”

A Talent for Recruiting

Companies also need to take a step back and look at the methods they use to attract talent, and this goes back to the early stages of any application process, says Kate.

“There is a huge amount you can do before getting to the interview stage – how you’re writing your job specifications and how you’re managing your talent and succession planning internally – so that the most capable candidates are putting themselves forward.

“There has been some suggestion that women set the bar far higher for themselves internally before they write an application. To address issues like that you need to be taking action way before the point at which you’re advertising and interviewing for a specific role.”

Eimear adds that for diversity to be at the centre of an organisation, every process, including recruitment, needs to be challenged.

“A lot of initiatives have been focused around coaching women to behave in a particular way to get promotion and rise up the ladder. In my early days I thought this was a great idea because it recognised that people don’t approach things in the same way. Now, I think we’re coaching women to behave like men, which is wrong.

“We’re asking women and people from ethnic minorities to change to fit in with a process when really organisations have a social responsibility to provide a fair playing field for all their employees.”

Demands from regulators, consumers and investors will force more improvements around diversity, but organisations ought to be more positive and seize the opportunity to make changes.

“That’s a far more authentic way of going about it,” says Kate, “and if you look at any area where you are trying to drive behavioural change, whether as an individual or an organisation, all the evidence shows that the most powerful transformations come about when you genuinely want to do something and not out of obligation.”

For Sandy, diversity will improve performance but she sees an even bigger picture developing. “It’s a direction of travel as important now as sustainability and company purpose. It’s not just about making money for shareholders, but more broadly and societally it’s about how the company is seen by its external stakeholders. It’s a very important shift toward a business imperative that maybe didn’t exist even five years ago.”

David Hobbs, Senior Editor, Criticaleye

Next week's Community Update will look at Managing Stakeholders During Change