Ladies and Gentlemen Please Show Your Appreciation for Diversity

15/07/2016 13:29 | Updated 15 July 2016

For years, if not decades, diversity professionals have suffered from being seen as somehow separate from mainstream HR. They have been treated like a "good practice area", a little like volunteering was when corporate responsibility arrived on the scene. It's been a puzzle as to why because it is so hard to argue against the benefits that a truly diverse workforce brings - improved decision-making, problem-solving, creativity and innovation, all of which lead to improved end-user impact.

I have worked alongside many dedicated diversity experts exhausted with trying to engage leaders with their business case. Don't get me wrong, progress has been made - undoubtedly heightened by more robust employment law, the hard work of many well-intentioned bodies such as BITC, and of course, some government focus too e.g. the Lord Davies enquiry into gender bias at board level.

But there are winds of change starting to blow and in these post-Brexit times, this could be something we need to focus on more than ever.

Three things have convinced me that diversity as a strategic consideration has become of crucial importance here - all of which have the potential to be heightened in post-Brexit times:

1. The war for talent still rages and the demographic time bomb still ticks

2. Workplace culture is seen more and more as a lever for success - new roles and departments to understand it and managing it are being created

3. Engaging with a bias free organisation is fundamental to our desire for authenticity whether we are employees or customers

In many of the world's developed economies the working age population is shrinking and with growing rates of employment, organisations are quite simply running out of people to hire. For his organisation - like others - to survive they will need to attract talent from the widest possible pool of individuals and that demands challenging some taboos in certain quarters such as hiring people with low or no qualifications, migrants and refugees.

But actually as we move towards more multi-generational, multi-cultural and multi-lingual workforces it cannot be a talent sourcing initiative - it is about diversity fuelling business strategy. And that flows through in two distinct and completely connected elements - harnessing the people power of the organisation and turning that to the advantage of the consumer.

Understanding and managing culture has surfaced as something HR should be championing before - back in 2010 when unveiling the new HR Professional Roadmap for the CIPD in the UK, the then head of the Institute Jackie Orme, described cultural appreciation as a foundational understanding needed for HR leaders. Whilst some are describing it once again as HR's battleground, it has already gone beyond that - it's a board-room issue because of that connectivity between people power and consumer experience.

And now we add to this the question of trust - because trust in our employer and in the organisations behind the products we buy and consume is something we care about more so than ever before. Bias and discrimination are reputationally damaging - whatever lens you are applying to your brand. Prophet's index on relevance - published last year for the US and with research now underway for 2016 more globally - shows that the brands that come out on top display this authentic engagement.

Unconscious bias training - to help organisations become more open and less discriminatory - has seen significant growth in the last decade, with "best practice" emerging, particularly within the professional services sector. But arguments are now being put forward that this is not the answer.

Research referenced in the most recent edition of the Harvard Business Review shows limited impact in shifting behavioural change from such efforts. Academics argue in fact that it is very hard, if not impossible, to eliminate bias - our minds are stubborn beasts! They say leaders ought to concentrate more on designing organisations that make it easier for our biased minds to get it right, developing "choice architecture" that avoids our gut and instincts getting in the way of more rational decision-making.

You could get depressed reading this - we are inherently discriminatory and there's limited ways to tackle it! And given some of the news headlines right now should we lurch for the panic button? I would not dare enter the fray on our societal challenges, but any organisation that is not elevating the question of inclusivity is not thinking as strategically as it needs to, not simply for today but absolutely for the future.