Career 12: Opening minds

By Philippa Reed

Valuing diversity means having an open mind, avoiding stereotypes and assumptions, and taking the time to explore each employee's personality and style. Photo / Thinkstock
Valuing diversity means having an open mind, avoiding stereotypes and assumptions, and taking the time to explore each employee's personality and style. Photo / Thinkstock

Better productivity, lower employee turnover, less absenteeism - these are just some workplace benefits of sound diversity management.

My dictionary defines diverse as "unlike in nature or quality; varied", and this, more than ever, is New Zealand's workforce. It's increasingly multi-cultural and multi-lingual, with more women and over-65s in work than ever before. One in five people has a disability, a rate that will increase as the population ages.

But diversity isn't just about the things you can see in a person - it's also about the invisible things that influence a person's world-view and how they do things, such as education, family status or first language, work styles, motivations, and decision-making approaches.

Valuing diversity means having an open mind, avoiding stereotypes and assumptions, and taking the time to explore each employee's personality and style. It means acknowledging differences and showing respect for others on a daily basis. It's about putting merit first, and ensuring everyone gets the fair go Kiwis so cherish.

And critically, it's about the ways in which an employer creates an atmosphere that values this.

Respecting diversity and showing tolerance isn't a nice-to-have or some sort of woolly thinking. Getting it wrong has serious costs - there have been a couple of high-profile examples that had consequences for not just individuals but their organisations.

Getting it right is good for the bottom line. Managing diverse people well is linked to business advantages such as greater creativity and innovation and improved recruitment, engagement and retention. So what does good diversity management mean on a day-to-day basis? It has to be demonstrated from the top to be really effective, and includes:

* Motivating staff to be loyal and committed to your business;

* Ensuring fair treatment of everyone who has a job or is trying to get one;

* Promoting understanding between staff;

* Supporting a stronger and more focused team;

* Ensuring you get the best person or team for the job.

It's also about being upfront about the blinkers you might be wearing. Unconscious bias - the idea that people's assumptions and decisions can be impacted by stereotypes they aren't aware they hold - can be a powerful influence in all of us and are inevitably limiting when imposed on others.

Supporting diversity doesn't need to be expensive or time-consuming, but it can be challenging and requires commitment from managers and, critically, the person at the top. Research tells us that positive leader behaviours and a supportive workplace culture is more influential in attitudes to diversity than anything on paper. Good diversity strategies make the link between diversity and business objectives, specify goals, and measure results so effectiveness can be gauged.

ANZ National Bank's Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, launched in May 2007, has three goals: to increase the number of women in senior roles; to help staff achieve work-life balance with flexible working arrangements; and to respect and connect with the community.

Valuing ANZ's diversity - from gender to culture and sexuality - is a business imperative for the bank, not an HR intervention, says Felicity Evans, general manager, Human Resources. "Increased diversity and opportunities for our people leads to increased diversity of thought and innovation," he says. "It just makes good business sense."  

Auckland-based company, Cardinal Logistics, agrees. Leadership attention to the invisible dimensions of diversity led Cardinal to identify some language, literacy and numeracy issues among its multi-cultural staff that were leading to high error rates and low productivity.

A training and cultural change programme was enthusiastically received and, according to Cardinal managing director Tony Gorton, led to a 50% decrease in picking, receipting and documentation errors. Customer and staff satisfaction is up and absenteeism is down; staff is delighted at the life skills they have gained. Says Gorton: "its win-win-win. I win, our employees win, and our customers do, too."

Work-life initiatives are an important part of sound diversity management, as they recognise the diversity of people's interests and commitments outside work. Initiatives often include flexible work options, health and wellness initiatives, assistance with childcare or study, and flexible leave options.

For example, engineering firm URS New Zealand offers its employees a great deal of autonomy on how they handle their workloads, including part-time work and flexible work. HR manager Tony Brown says the benefits include lower-than-average turnover in a skills-short industry.

URS geotechnical engineer Debbie Fellows says choosing to work part-time after her daughter was born 13 years ago hasn't compromised her career progression. "What URS has developed is quite unique; work and life provisions are an inherent part of company culture," she says. "My career has developed significantly while I've been working part-time."

These days, she works 26 hours over two long days and two short days every week, with Wednesdays off. She sometimes works extra hours from home, usually in the early morning or late evening.

Diversity success stories

* Stevenson Group enjoyed reduced employee turnover, fewer disciplinary hearings, fewer sick days, and fewer injuries after it introduced foundation skills training, says chief executive Mark Franklin. The training included literacy and numeracy tuition, interpersonal skills, problem-solving, budgeting and wellness.

* Auckland car yard Giltrap Prestige has six people with hearing impairments among its 15-strong team of car groomers. Manager Tim Helg says that as the number of hearing-impaired staff on the team has increased, the team has become more reliable, there has been less absenteeism, and workmanship has improved. Staff looked out for each other.

* YWCA Auckland found that work-life initiatives helped stem high turnover in an environment where people are often driven by a sense of vocation but risk burnout. Staff can take advantage of a number of initiatives such as flexible hours, a time-in-lieu policy, with time taken in the following four weeks to prevent exhaustion; a nine-day fortnight for full-timers; and working from home with laptops and remote access.

* Philippa Reed is the EEO Trust chief executive.

- NZ Herald

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