Lost your password?
Don't have an account? Sign Up

Diversity and inclusion in companies

Diversity & Inclusion: after digital transformation and smart-working policies, the third key success pillar that companies fail to embrace

1. Introduction

It was 2015 when I first heard companies discussing digital transformation and how this would have changed their business, with the idea that productivity, efficiency, and sales as a result could leap forward by replacing old systems with new ones that would turn manual processes into automation.

Today, several years later, it seems many are still stuck at that stage, with some failed attempts in their recent history. The reason is that these companies rushed into buying new technologies, but did not take the time to understand what cultural changes were required to actually transform. It is a pretty standard scenario: in the workplace employees often feel like they are not empowered to do their job at best, with slow and inefficient tools, poor governance, money wasted here and there, and little understanding of the daily struggles. But you know, there’s no time to complain, to listen, no time for the important strategic long-term thinking, because running the business today is what matters, never checking if we are all empowered to do it at best.

The buzz word “digital transformation” is in fact empowerment first of all, and has a direct impact on employees and consumers’ experience, especially when the business is in high-demand, or during unfortunate moments. In this sense the pandemic marked a clear distinction between who was doing well and who missed that train, with challenges like: can you still keep your top line growing or stable even when stores are closed? Can you still run your business when you can’t go to the office? Are you able to empower your workforce to be productive despite the tough situation?

However, this article won’t focus on the broad winding topic of digital transformation nor on Covid 19, which from a workplace perspective simply increased awareness about issues that were already there before. I’ve decided to start from this because while it’s true that technology enhancements alone can already make a difference, what drives real innovation and growth is the shift to a new mindset.

Not only consumers, as we already know, but also employees themselves have changed. They have become more demanding about the ideas and values conveyed by the company, since money and products are no longer enough if the storytelling is poorly reflecting who they are as individuals. Because of this, employers are presented with the opportunity (and the big challenge) to also upgrade their approach to the workforce together with their technologies.

2. Employees are customers

In this article I am not by chance often referring to both “employees and consumers”, as I wish to stress how relevant it has become to understand and genuinely care also about employees to ensure growth and success. While satisfying consumers has always been in the radar, several companies got used to giving kid-glove treatment to them because they spend money, assuming that employees just needed to be productive and be thankful for their salary instead.

Employees are the first and most valuable resource of a company and deserve the highest attention as part of a proper growth strategy, because they are responsible for ultimately making the consumers happy. As obvious as it can be, we see how often they report feeling exploited, disrespected, and ultimately not satisfied by that established way of doing business and managing human resources.

While some workplace habits were once accepted, society went through a deep change in the last 10 years. Managers grown and educated with a mindset that was suitable in the 80s, 90s and 00s are persuaded that what they’ve learnt places them in the right spot to lead a team or a company. However this is no longer the case.

We are in a moment in history where people started acknowledging that every single employee is an individual before being part of a production chain, with his own goals and dreams that are not the same as their manager’s or the owner’s. Employees’ point of view has shifted from “being grateful to have a good job” to “looking for the job that’s right for them”, leading to what the media have named the Big Resignation.

This is big (and urgent) news for companies. If it’s true that all employees are different and expect recognition, it means that policies that were usually meant to be standardized for all, must broaden their scope to account for a diverse workforce that has different needs.

Specifically to the post-covid era, we see for example how people refuse to return to offices, maybe not every day, not with a badge to check them in and out. They complain and ask for a change, but ultimately leave if forced to go back. It’s not about them being demanding or whiny, it’s about acknowledging that they are happier than before while providing the very same service to the company.

It’s true that we can’t generalize: flexible hours and remote working may not be suitable for all roles and for all people. Some of us enjoy being in the office more than others for example. And that’s perfectly fine. But in fact employees don’t ask for a new standardized policy, they ask for policies that empower them to be the happiest and best version of themselves. How many days are spent in the office or how many hours in front of a monitor is not what should matter, rather the results.

Needless to say, smart working policies and digital transformations also go hand in hand with sustainability: reduced commuting, pollution, waste, amount of energy and resources. So if on one hand companies must invest and learn new ways of operating, on the other they benefit in terms of costs and margin in the medium-long term, while also becoming more attractive for applicants that have grown conscious of these important matters, to the extent that they ask and discuss them already in the first interview. Indeed, if we think about all these variables, employees have become our most demanding consumers.

3. Human beings in the workplace

So if it’s true that companies can pursue all these win-win situations that bring innovation, make profits grow and employees happy, how come that it does not often translate into reality?

As previously touched, the problem is that we have been taught that there is a right and a wrong way to do business, inspired by the biggest entrepreneurs in our history, which were born and operated in times where a different approach was suitable and socially accepted. There are even manuals and experts that hold workshops, passing on this culture.

In Italy we even say there are companies with an “Italian mindset”, which identifies a top-down management where there’s not much space for employees’ needs and thoughts. As an employee you just need to work as much as possible and be thankful for the salary, while someone else has already done the talking and the thinking. To new generations that appears as a modern version of a ruler-servant relationship, but for some it may still seem the key to success. Debatable.

What however is not up for discussion is that this old mentality has created environments where either the employee does what the boss says or the relationship won’t work. It did not create a collaborative and safe space where ideas could thrive, where people could grow as individuals, and where everyone could contribute at best to the company success and pursue their own goals at the same time.

In the last 10 years one key perspective has changed. We were taught that when entering the workplace we had to leave our problems and personal goals outside, so that we could fully focus on the job. That used to mean being professional. The reason for that old conception is that it makes us all the same, machines ready to produce, take orders and create outputs, without being interrupted by personal matters. However now employees expect to be welcomed for who they are, with some good days and some not, with different goals, skills, personalities, as any human being basically.

4. The foundation for a successful diverse workforce

So if it’s true that people are all different and that our workforce is no longer (it never was) the same, how do we cope with such diversity and complexity? As a manager or as a recruiter how do I handle this to ensure it can serve my company goals? After all, this is work, we need to turn everything we do into growth and money.

Actually, if we talk to companies, diversity & inclusion (D&I from now on) seems a pretty straightforward topic that they are successfully tackling already.

The first sample statement I normally hear leaders say when discussing D&I is: “We are already respecting diversity, we have women in management, we have multiple nationalities, and we welcome everyone.” Companies feel like they’ve done the homework basically. But being inclusive is not a list of checkboxes to tick. I explain inclusion in the workplace as the ability of a leader or a company to empower every single individual to be the most productive and happiest version of themselves.

The business case behind this is very strong: a happy employee is going to work better and stay in the company as a loyal customer for much longer. Struggling to find the right talents or preventing high turnover are key issues for companies in 2022 and this is the cause, only this.

If you want good employees to stay/join your company and make it thrive, make them happy! It’s just like any other relationship: it will last as long as it works for both.

It is not an easy task. The journey is long and requires money, time and dedication, because it starts from understanding what diversity is and how we can update our mindset and our policies to be inclusive. It is now important to clarify that creating a diverse workforce is not the same as being able to make them feel included. The two things should go together, but often don’t. Let’s check for example what happens in societies where cultures meet but there’s been no education to diversity: discrimination, ghettoization, verbal and physical violence…nothing good basically.

In a company environment, but also in society although with different implications, we could see diversity as a number of characteristics that are identified by people as distinctive of a group or another. It is a concept that evolves and that in these years has been subject of several studies. For the sake of our discussion in this article we will be focusing on what I consider being the key aspects that lead to discrimination in the workplace, summarized by points and with some practical examples.

4.1 Gender equality

This is usually the first pillar that companies tackle in the inclusion workspace and I must say that in recent years I have seen real changes happening in terms of salaries, roles, and responsibility for women. However this is not clearly happening everywhere and not for all gender-related differences.

Maternity leave is still considered a problem for example. Old biases make even the most progressive minds agree with the fact that having kids means pausing your career and is a loss for the company. To stimulate the conversation and reverse them we can start from some questions: are we sure we can find the most talented person for a role by excluding women applicants? If a woman gets pregnant, will her role and the company collapse just because she is away for one year (sometimes much less depending on regulations)? Will we give up on 10 years of great work of a woman just to avoid having her out for some time? And also, why are we assuming she will be the one taking the leave and not her partner? And if the partner is a man, aren’t men deserving of paternity leave as much as women? So why don’t we ask men if they plan to have kids before hiring them as unfortunately often done with women?

All of these questions could unfold in long interesting debates, but discussing what a woman will do with her uterus instead of understanding how much she can contribute to the company clearly goes against the goal of hiring talents.

Besides I purposefully introduced men in this point because gender equality is a big issue for us too. The idea that as a man I won’t ever ask for paternity leave, or that I have to aim for a career and higher responsibilities than a woman, that I must be strong and conceal weaknesses “as a real man”… all these assumptions are not healthy to deal with on a daily basis. Gender equality is indeed something that empowers every employee, not just women.

It says to every person that no matter their gender or their plans for family, their work will always be equally valued and their career path will present the very same opportunities. Working hard and well is the only thing that will matter.

4.2 Sexuality & gender identity

Most companies nowadays welcome LGBTQ+ members and would bet that there is no discrimination at all in the workplace. It seems enough to have some homosexual employees and put rainbows on products for June Pride Month to nail it. However, because the LGBTQ+ world is not usually part of our education, it’s very easy to assume inclusion is done, while people build what I call “invisible walls”, both from the inside and the outside of it.

Let’s take for example a group of colleagues where there’s a homosexual person. Everyone knows about it maybe, but don’t really talk about it, because it feels strange and tough to discuss his/her personal life, afraid of stepping into a private space or using the wrong words or saying something more than what’s appropriate. This happens frequently even when there is full respect and acceptance of diversity. A manager would easily ask a straight man “how’s your wife?”, but may not feel comfortable asking a gay man “how’s your husband?”. This uneasy situation is also perceived by the homosexual person, that would not feel safe in disclosing personal life to avoid judgment and discrimination, although he/she may be in a totally safe space. And the more complex the topic becomes, the tougher it gets to open up and create relationships, for example when touching transgenderism, gender identity, sexuality and so on.

These invisible walls are what we need to tear down with education about the LGBTQ+ world in the workplace. We don’t study it in school (unfortunately yet), so we need to learn it at a later stage if we want to create a better environment for all employees. Workshops and training on the subject are becoming popular, but also having real stories maybe from employees could serve the purpose. Plus, since inclusion is not a business-only matter, relationships with our family and friends will benefit from this as well. There is no happy workplace if we cannot be our true self and always have to limit our words and actions for fear of causing uncomfortable situations.

4.3 Culture & religion

It’s no secret how western countries have developed some level of general skepticism about those that don’t share the same cultural background. It seems like we cannot trust people that think differently as we don’t know what to expect, how they could react or interpret a sentence or a behavior. This is true, it happens: for example specific topics, figures of speech or body language that are common for someone may result in a misunderstanding with someone from a different background. And this makes it more difficult to work in a fast-paced environment, where you can’t stop and take the time to clarify.

However what we have found out is that the coexistence of different backgrounds not only helps looking at ideas from different angles, enhancing that brainstorming and strategic thinking that we always fail to perform and give for granted; but it also creates a space for people to talk, to discover, to grow and enrich their knowledge, turning the workplace (physical or virtual) into an experience that goes beyond productivity. It becomes interesting, stimulating, it inspires us to get out of our comfort zone, rethink our ideas and ultimately improve ourselves.

It could be someone doing Ramadam in the office, or praying, or wearing religious pieces of clothing, waving and nodding in a different way, tackling a problem with a different cultural approach, having a different perception of leadership or family, having a different education, different tv shows in their childhood, the list could grow for hours…this is richness for the workplace and being able to welcome diversity will attract talents from different cultures that often prefer not to take the risk to find themselves uneasy in a more traditional company.

4.4 Language

While this could be paired with the previous point, I prefer to keep it separated, because of the specific issues it raises. Where several languages meet, if there’s a predominant one that everyone speaks fluently (usually English), it is easy to feel included. However if the majority of the group is used to chatting in their own language that some colleagues won’t understand, it may become tough for a foreigner to build relationships and feel included.

Several companies for example use English as a work language, but then maybe at the coffee machine people speak Italian if they are based in Italy and most people are Italian. For any foreigner in the room, this could deeply affect the sense of belonging and make them uneasy. In these cases, let’s make sure to educate and stimulate inclusive behavior, while also providing language lessons to those that may not be proficient with the predominant one.

On top of this, let’s not underestimate how difficult it is even for highly proficient people to speak a foreign language for 8 hours. It may not appear so, but we should not forget it, because we will be talking to someone that is taking an extra mile to be present in the conversation, and that deserves respect.

4.5 Disability

Let’s start from the fact that disability is not just related to people in a wheelchair. Disability sometimes is not even visible and we all know that, but who lives with it everyday bears the struggle anyway, so let’s keep our mind open and let’s not assume that everyone is playing the game with the very same possibilities. Some disabilities are tougher than others from a work perspective and understanding this will enable us to make each individual give their best in the workplace.

The second consideration is that companies often hire people with disabilities because there are regulations that force them or provide incentives. While this is very helpful to drive the mindset change, we have the chance to take action regardless of it and understand how our company can include and leverage additional workforce from people with disabilities, for example by connecting with institutions and creating dedicated roles.

It is also once again true that hiring people with disabilities does not make them feel automatically included. Our offices, our technologies, as well as our products must account for diversity and provide the best experience possible. Buildings must be accessible, devices must install the right software, websites or products must be suitable for a disabled consumer.

Overall I think this is a topic that still requires a high level of normalization. It’s often hidden to our eyes as it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It seems we are dealing with someone that is significantly different from us, but the struggle of a disability is not actually getting in the way of sharing the very same goals: love and being loved, having a purpose in life, being happy and so on. Let’s start from where we are similar and let’s build more human companies that better reflect reality.

4.6 Age & Perceived age

I have also decided to add in two more points of diversity, not often mentioned, but that I believe belong to the conversation. First of all: age.

It’s a fact. Some companies don’t hire people in their 50s anymore. Too much experience, too old to join a young team or covering junior roles, not a good fit for the company image, and so on. At the same time, despite the great skills of a person, some roles require a seniority, at least being 40 years old. The bias is that at a certain age someone has had kids, maybe went through more from a life perspective, and is therefore considered more mature and more responsible.

While for sure different moments in our lives can correspond to skills that someone may have developed, this has little to do with how they will perform a job. Someone may be 60 years old and just want a low-responsibility role to earn some money and get to retirement, while spending time with their kids. And a 35-years-old single young man could be highly focused on his career and ready to take responsibilities and lead a team. Several founders of successful companies and startups are even younger than that, for example. Still, age always gets in the way when hiring people, adding biases in front of what they could or could not be doing for our company.

On top of this let’s mention the “perceived age” as one more complication layer. For some roles you need to look older or younger, regardless of what your ID card says. There is the idea that for responsibility roles a person “needs to look more as a man and less as a boy” for example. I was once told this for real. On the flipside, looking older may affect how well you fit in a young team, no matter what your actual approach would be.

4.7 Physical appearance

After mentioning the perceived age, we can then broaden the conversation to the whole physical appearance. This type of discrimination is very present in more traditional companies and social contexts, where visual similarities are perceived as a plus to collaboration and beauty standards are connected to performance. I think most people know by now that this is just a bias, but it’s well rooted in our education and has become a powerful bias not only for recruiters, but for all of us.

Human resources teams are used to rejecting candidates that “don’t align with the company image”. For example, a male applicant with “inappropriate” nail polish, a lady that has had a bold lip surgery, people with tattoos or unusual hair styles who “do not look professional”, or simply someone wearing the wrong outfit. Companies frequently put physical appearance before skills, because society has been taught by the media that certain characteristics vehicle certain qualities.

As a company, here we should take a step back, understand what this person could do to drive success and growth, and make sure we let him/her feel at ease to do so. This will also make it more pleasant to be in the office and open up to colleagues, because people feel like they can really be accepted for who they are.

5. Conclusions

As recruiters, if we go back and check how many people we have discriminated against with all these biases and how narrow our pool of possible candidates has become as a result of it, we understand why companies complain that they cannot find talents. We are targeting a much lower percentage of the population, maybe also offering a low salary and a workplace that does not encourage productivity. It can’t be surprising that the research takes months, despite the high levels of unemployment and people looking for a new job.

The good point is that what we are discussing here is no longer an elephant in the room and most companies have started taking concrete actions, to the point that we can now name brands that do well and brands that don’t. We have several stories to prove that D&I represents an attractive value that contributes to business growth, also thanks to employees who have started being very vocal, through rating websites like Glassdoor.

It’s a revolution, because people now recognize that their integrity is not built on how well they can fit the company rules, rather on how much they feel accepted and empowered in the workplace.

6. What’s next?

Clearly we do see many exciting challenges for companies and managers. Being able to successfully tackle a digital transformation, develop a proper smart working policy and learn how to make everyone feel included is a tough scope of work to be added on top of the traditional business affairs. It certainly requires expertise that companies don’t have yet, as well as the intention to embrace the change.

If you have made it this far, I am glad we have spent some time together and I hope this has been useful, albeit very brief in properly addressing all these topics. If you would like to learn more and get more action items, I invite you to join me and Bruno Carenini in hosting the next episode of Windows Interview, which will delve into the topic of D&I with a focus on the LGBTQ+ world.

Author: Lorenzo Riberto, Senior Omnichannel Program Manager Rossignol Group

Lorenzo Riberto

Read Italian version