Phil O'Reilly & Jo Cribb: Variety is the spice of life

By Phil O'Reilly, March 2017

Evidence shows that diverse and inclusive workplaces tend to be more innovative, more productive, more engaged and more successful.

New Zealand is one of the most diverse nations on earth. We have a long history of recognising and celebrating social and economic inclusion. And yet, we are failing to move forward sufficiently rapidly when it comes to ensuring that our workplaces are as diverse and as inclusive as they could be.

Part of the problem is that workplace diversity and inclusion is often defined as a women's issue. This is despite the fact that there are many other groups in our society – for example, Pasifika, Maori, Asian and migrant communities – which are also under-represented at the senior levels of public and private sector organisations.

But the main stumbling block for both public and private sector organisations striving to improve diversity and inclusion is that they often don't see it as a fundamental business issue; or one that is central to their success.

Instead, as mentioned, they approach it as either a women's issue, as a human resources issue, a social justice issue or they categorise it as something else entirely, such as corporate social responsibility.

In addition, leaders have a tendency to allocate the task to junior staff members who aren't in a position to make the hard decisions about what they will and will not do. We have spent many years working across the public and private sectors and have seen these common mistakes being made time and time again.

In our experience, it is only by placing diversity and inclusion at the heart of a workplace culture that marked progress in this area can be made.

Here's how leaders can do this:

First understand the benefits of operating a diverse and inclusive workplace. Business leaders need to know that this isn't tokenism in response to the pressures of political correctness. But that the real benefits include: equal opportunities for all; better access to a varied talent pool that is often being under utilised by others; broader views on workplace issues and problems; as well as the promotion of cultural and social understanding – which, in turn, has a positive impact on organisational success.

Understand what you are trying to achieve. For example, some organisations may be doing quite well with gender diversity but may want to improve their disability inclusion. Others, meanwhile, may have good cultural diversity but may want to invest in professional development to help elevate skill sets of minority groups for the greater good of the workforce.

Know why and how you are going to improve diversity and inclusion. We often come across organisations with woolly concepts around this, such as wanting to ensure that the makeup of their staff mirrors that of New Zealand society. For all but the very largest organisations that is simply a pipe dream. However, it is far better to think about encouraging into the fold groups or categories of people over time rather than trying to include everyone at once.

Be truly committed to change. Here, we are talking about having the same level of commitment as when you are driving financial performance or entering a new market. This is why diversity and inclusion is an organisational issue and a core part of organisational performance. Business leaders may need to build the organisation's capacity to change for this to work.

Set real, hard, measurable, time-bound targets. These need to be granular, challenging and known to everyone in the organisation. Setting targets in this way would be what any good leadership team would do for everything else in their organisation, so why should it be different when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

Have a plan. Make sure this has tangible actions around hitting the targets mentioned above. Allocate responsibilities and empower your team to stand up and undertake those responsibilities.

Ensure your strategy is measured and communicated. Report the outcomes alongside all of the other organisational metrics that are regularly reported and with the same rigour and discipline. Remember to be prepared to modify and improve your strategy based on the measured outcomes.

Through all of this leaders must commit to modelling behaviours, making the difficult decisions, including potentially exiting from the organisation those who are not prepared to make the change. Leaders need to champion activity; they need to take accountability for failure and celebrate success.

These approaches are nothing new. Successful organisations have been implementing these processes to overcome a wide range of challenges for a long time. The shift is that we should be taking proven methods and applying them to the area of diversity and inclusion.

And as more organisations start to understand that diversity and inclusion is integral to the success and profitability of their business, so New Zealand will start to move forward on this at a much quicker pace.