The events of the past year have caused us all to pause and reflect on our existing work practices. As we start reshaping our working priorities and processes, now is the time to build in a long-term commitment to diversity and inclusion, says Jane Farrell, chief executive of diversity consultancy EW Group.
It’s no secret that Covid-19 has had an adverse effect on diversity and inclusion in organisations, with women and BAME individuals bearing a disproportionate burden when it comes to redundancies and wellbeing impact. As the vaccine roll out continues and we begin to see the first green shoots of recovery, we must not forget who has borne the brunt of the pandemic and build in strategies to redress the balance in the years to come, suggests Jane Farrell.
Jane’s organisation, EW Group offers diversity training, analysis and consultancy to a variety of organisations. In this Q&A she discusses what we can learn from the events of the past year and how that should inform our approach to diversity and inclusion going forward.
How would you say diversity and inclusion are being affected by the pandemic and what should leaders of organisations be doing to address this?
Jane: Covid-19 continues to present significant challenges with many businesses having to adapt in order to survive, manage significant growth, or transform the business model. Unfortunately, it is redundancies and restructures that are consistently in the headlines and the best companies know that it’s vital to ensure that some groups are not disproportionately impacted during these changes.
The pandemic has exacerbated bias in the workplace and we have to be aware that when things get tough, decisions are often made that favour people who are like the people at the top. If leaders are aware of this pattern, they can ensure that it is not replicated in their own organisations. They can rethink the criteria used for redundancies, or rethink the way that roles are structured so that women, for example, are not disproportionately impacted. Organisations can also consider re-training employees for roles that are at less risk.
Do you feel that the current disruption to the ‘old way’ of doing things presents any opportunities for leaders to step up their diversity and inclusion efforts?
Jane: Absolutely, during this period of uncertainty, the plates are shifting, and this presents organisations with an opportunity to recast, and to look at processes, policies, practices, structures and behaviours through the lens of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Thinking about change through an EDI lens will ensure that leaders handle restructuring in such a way that it does not disproportionately and unfairly impact certain groups of employees, for example women working part time, or black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff in low-paid jobs in less secure parts of a business.
People need help to develop the confidence and skills to take positive account of difference, be an ally, understand their own biases and be confident and competent inclusive leaders.
The best companies know this and are weaving diversity and inclusion into their new business plans and approaching restructuring and talent management with diversity and inclusion firmly in mind to emerge stronger from this process.
It is also worth highlighting that an organisation’s commitment to addressing diversity and inclusion should be part of its culture and values every day, not just in times of crisis or change.
When starting conversations about D&I in the workplace, what topics would you suggest as the starting points?
Jane: Carrying out a diagnostic is often the best place to start. We always begin by looking for the good practice as its important to build on strengths, but this doesn’t mean we gloss over what we think needs to change. A diagnostic will also involve looking at the data in terms of representation – how many disabled staff are there and at what levels, and how many black or Asian senior leaders are there, for example. Having a long cool look at the data helps an organisation understand their current position. A forensic analysis of policies, processes and behaviours is also part of a good diagnostic, which will then make specific actionable recommendations so that the organisation can move forward on EDI. It’s key to be open about what is being done well, and what isn’t, and then decide on a convincing action plan that will deliver positive change.
Ultimately, it is really important to help people get diversity and inclusion right rather than wait for them to get it wrong. People need help to develop the confidence and skills to take positive account of difference, be an ally, understand their own biases and be confident and competent inclusive leaders.
Everyone needs to understand how diversity and inclusion impacts what they say and do day in day out, no matter what role they play in an organisation. If people are not helped to understand all this, they may feel nervous and unsure and end up making mistakes that they do not want to make.
Some critics argue that unconscious bias training can sometimes backfire and create a negative response to diversity and inclusion within organisations. What’s your opinion?
Jane: There’s a misconception that unconscious bias training ‘points the finger’, is guilt inducing, and tells people they are bad because they are white, or a man, or heterosexual. This is simply not true.
Good unconscious bias training makes sure that we have an opportunity to think through our biases (because we all have them) and decide what we can say and do to ensure that our biases are not played out in the workplace.
Highlighting how unconscious bias training will remove uncomfortable feelings and place employees in a position to be confident in what they need to say and do differently will help overcome resistance. Essentially, it equips people to become better leaders, managers, colleagues and also to take this thinking into the way they deliver services and develop products.
Do you feel that online training offers any benefits with regards to inclusion/diversity in the workplace?
Jane: Yes, as if it is done well, it is easier for everyone to be involved in different ways. Some people who might not want to speak up can put comments in the chat box, and the pre- and post-course discussions and work allow for different engagement too. Some people who use assistive technologies have also reported there being more of a ‘level playing field’ too, and in many cases they are far more adept at leveraging the technologies than many non-disabled people.
Is there still a place for in-person diversity/inclusion training or do you think it’s possible to do this exclusively online in future?
Jane: Personally, I can’t wait to get back in the room with groups of people. I miss the free-flowing conversations, and I find it easier to read the non-verbal communications when I am in the same room. We are social beings and for some of us, myself included, I miss working alongside people.
BAME communities and women are currently underrepresented in the boardroom. How do you think leadership development needs to change to ensure the next generation of leaders is more diverse?
Jane: The best inclusive leadership programmes weave EDI into every aspect of the curriculum. Unfortunately, some programmes have a separate session on EDI, let’s say 11am – 12pm and then move on to people development, or organisational culture and strategy. Our approach is different. We weave EDI into all the sessions on strategy, culture and everything else, and ensure delegates understand that in order to be an excellent leader, they need to be able to ‘hold’ the EDI agenda confidently and competently.
Leadership development programmes also need to ensure that EDI is woven into the way that diverse customers/clients are served, the way that products are designed, and the real business benefits for being as great at EDI as they are about all other aspects of their business. So, great leadership development is completely steeped in EDI.
It’s also a good thing to publish achievable targets for how the organisation can be more diverse at all levels over the next three, five and ten years. Let’s be honest, we have targets for everything else. Also, as progress is made, we must not forget to celebrate successes and the benefits EDI brings.
Interested in this topic? Read Beating the bias: why D&I training is about talking, not tick-boxes .
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