• 10/05/2017
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  • Insights

By Nicola Sullivan, UK Sales Director
In our ever changing and always-on culture, driving productivity is of course still the paramount issue concerning business leaders. And productivity is the outcome of complex matrix of elements that drive employee engagement.

Building and leading diversity in teams

One such element is the level of diversity and inclusion achieved, or at least proactively targeted, by an organisation. This extends far beyond simply paying lip service to the issue to meet or exceed employees’ expectations. True diversity has real business benefits as evidenced by a recent study by management consultancy McKinsey. It revealed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. And in the UK, they found a correlation between greater gender diversity on the senior-executive team and business performance; for every 10% increase in gender diversity, EBIT rose by 3.5%. With Brexit on the horizon, there’s never been a more important time to unlock the agility, innovation and commercial edge that is proven to come from a diverse workforce.

Mind the perception gap

Our recent research has uncovered a burning issue underlying diversity in the workplace: the fundamental disconnect between what HR managers believe they’re instilling (fair promotion processes and a diverse workforce) and what employees feel is actually put in place (imperfect and sometimes biased policies). The spotlight is now steadily shining on promoting diversity, which makes one thing certain: if you and your employees aren’t on the same page, both your talent retention and engagement are at risk, and ultimately organisational performance.

A rudderless ship

The vast majority (94%) of HR Managers feel the promotion process in their organisation is handled fairly, and similarly (91%) that the promotion decision-making process has been set up to be inclusive. Yet 44% of those same HR managers admit to sensing frustration in the workforce when it comes to promotions. That hunch is right, as indeed one in five employees (20%) perceive inequality in their attempts to rise up the professional ranks.

The factors governing promotion decisions must be communicated clearly and consistently to avoid confusion and safeguard your organisation against the suspicion of bias, conscious or unconscious.

Both employees and employers see eye to eye on one issue: the most important factors when promoting an employee. Both agree “working hard” and “doing a good job” should be common denominators with 41% of HR managers and 53% of employees believing this to be right. But we mustn’t forget these are largely unquantifiable factors that can be difficult to assess while leaving room for unintentional favouritism to run free. Make sure you have defined ‘hard work’ and ‘a good job’ for yourself and for your team before holding career conversations as you need to create a common understanding of what “good” looks like in order to proactively measure that standard in talent development processes.

Motivating factors

Most importantly, the prerequisite to any successful company-wide programme is first and foremost an understanding of the importance of the issue. Do you and your company know why diversity matters? More to the point: do you believe in the company policy? For half of the employer respondents we tallied, diversity was a mere protective measure. It is seen as the thing that must be done in today’s day and age, as it prevents negative attention being drawn to an organisation. This in spite of an overwhelming majority (86%) believing it to be of paramount importance overall. If employers themselves do not believe or perceive the competitive advantage they set to gain from nurturing a diverse workforce, they will go about implementing it by simply and half-heartedly ticking boxes. Employees cannot be won over and potential remains untapped.

Diversity and Inclusion are complementary not synonymous

Employees’ mostly negative perceptions of D&I progress seems surprising especially given nearly three quarters (70%) of HR Managers revealed they have incorporated diversity quotas into their recruitment process.

Laura Sherbin and Ripa Rashid, co-authors of Winning the War for Talent In Emerging Markets shed light on this “disconnect phenomenon” in their latest article for Harvard Business Review by explaining that diversity and inclusion are not one and the same, and therein lies the problem. Indeed diversity, they say, is easy to measure, “it’s a simple matter of headcount.” But inclusion is what comes next, what makes that number come to fruition. They use Verna Myers apt analogy: “diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Ask yourself if your company does differentiate between the two, do you make it a point to invite all employees to dance? Make sure you aren’t recruiting from the full plethora of human potential, only to leave your newest employees alone in a sea of unfamiliar colleagues.

Thinking outside the box may be the best way to go about this. Instead of going for the often trod road of ‘line managers for all’, consider mentors and sponsors too. Last but not least, pay special attention to ‘inclusivity’ when assessing leadership potential.

Paying heed to the naysayers

At first glance, it seems that diversity and inclusion are on everyone’s agenda, and that most have acquiesced to its VIP status, but our research unveiled that one in seven (14%) don’t believe it warrants being such a priority.

Of those that do not regard diversity a factor worth stimulating, 86% believe this because “employees will be promoted regardless of diversity if they are good.” This opens the all-too-often-feared can of worms labelled “positive discrimination”. Businesses cannot shy away from this ‘darker side of the coin’ and can break the taboo by vocalising the differences they see between positive discrimination, adhering to a trend, and the fair programmes they have devised to tackle a worthwhile issue.

In her article , Belinda Parmar explains why she believes the best way to create a diverse workplace is to ditch diversity programmes altogether. “The uncomfortable truth,” she expertly states “is that corporate power is often understood as a zero-sum game: if a programme promises to empower a specific group of people, other groups may feel disempowered. Meanwhile, those being targeted by the programme are often reticent to get involved, not wanting to be identified as minority, and therefore excluded from the mainstream.” Parmar reminds us to keep our entire workforce in mind when thinking of diversity.

The Financial Times also very recently interviewed executives across the corporate world to gauge their interest and opinion on attempts to diversify leadership, specifically as it pertains to women’s inclusion . The results were astounding with some officials claiming: “I find diversity and inclusion initiatives to be quite shallow,” while others were “convinced that quotas are needed”. This not only highlights the diverse opinions on diversity but it also shows the deeply rooted nature of the problems it poses. The workplace mirrors the world that surrounds it, a world where solutions are rarely unilaterally accepted. When embarking on the long and winding road that leads to a diverse workforce, find comfort in the fact that diverging voices and opinions will not necessarily lead to your downfall, but are only a necessary accompaniment to change. Setting unwavering, well communicated objectives will get you to safe harbour.

Priorities and implementation

For companies looking to bridge the diversity gap, there is no silver bullet policy. HR professionals and senior management need to develop solutions tailored to the nature of both their organisation and its staff if they hope to create a promotion process seen as fairer and more inclusive by its employees.

What’s more, our research shows senior management should consider engaging its employees in finding those solutions so as to bridge the perception gap currently overshadowing diversity in the workplace.

For instance, we’ve discovered most organisations are prioritising sexism, yet ageism seems in fact to be the most rife in companies. If your company chooses to prioritise gender representation, that decision must not only be made explicit, but also thoroughly explained. The fact that gender issues have gained traction in the media at present is not good enough validation. Although as Sarah Churchman, Head of Diversity at professional services firm PwC, aptly states in Adecco’s latest Market Watch report “increased visibility of the problem and metric to display can only help.”

Lots of effort is indisputably being put into building diverse teams, and into ensuring the promotion process remains equitable. Most (84%) of our respondents confirmed their firm had an official ‘diversity’ company-wide policy, and three quarters (74%) have either a scoring system or framework in place to guide and direct promotion decisions. What’s more, 81% of people managers believe their leaders understand the meaning of diversity.

All of those efforts are commendable and necessary, as is making sure we do no leave our blinkers on when thinking of diversity. A third of the HR managers we surveyed didn’t believe their company found any difficulty in implementing D&I, and the aforementioned Adecco report also divulges 53.1% of the respondents it surveyed were ‘very confident’ salaries are in fact equal across genders. Yet we know from figures released already as part of new statutory Gender Pay Gap reporting legislation for large companies that this is an issue that prevails, so that confidence is somewhat misplaced.

It is time both senior management and employees learn to sing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to diversity and inclusion as changes are coming, and with them come legal obligations (the Gender Pay Gap reporting was announced on April 6th and is case and point). The price is too high for companies to afford not doing so. Indeed the majority of employees (74%) stated plainly they would consider leaving a company if it appeared to lack diversity, and three quarters of HR managers felt the same, which means your pool of talent is directly put at risk if diversity and inclusion aren’t made a priority.

When faced with implementing change – however great the scale – businesses shouldn’t fear calling in specialists and reaching out for additional resources.

To find out more about how Lee Hecht Harrison | Penna can help your organisation with talent management and leadership development, please call us on 0207 933 8333 or visit us at lhhpenna.com