Thinking the same... differently

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Globalisation and changing demographics in the UK mean that most organisations have staff who need to be able to work cross culturally. In addition, there is growing competition for talented people - businesses need to recruit from every possible pool to increase their chances of recruiting the best. It is clear that organisations need to promote diversity internally, to attract candidates from all backgrounds and facilitate cross-cultural working across the organisation. This aspect of diversity is challenging and difficult for many individuals and groups.

Kit Thacker, partner at MaST International outlines his suggestions for promoting diversity within organisations.

1. Identify key areas for concern

Ask the people who work with you to tell you what is going on. Ask your customers and suppliers how they see you. Some early signs of future problems include difficulties with recruitment, a rise in use of grievance procedures or an imbalance in the ethnic, gender, age or disability mix of applicants for a job or promotion. Forward-looking organisations will act on these issues now, not wait for problems to occur.

2. Get commitment from the top

Make sure you have the buy-in and understanding of the leadership within the organisation. What you are starting will make a difference and benefit the company.

3. Find the problem before you implement a solution

Companies who believe that they have a challenge with diversity will often want to change very quickly before their business suffers. However, employers must assess very carefully what is happening in the organisation, and why the issues are arising. Organisations will often require an audit to see this bigger picture, which measures the employer’s intentions and procedures as well as the perceptions of employees and other stakeholders. The audit will reveal strengths as well as dangers within the organisation.

Although in larger companies the audit can be carried out using internal resources, given the sensitivity of the issues it is usually better that the auditor is seen to be independent. Anecdotal evidence is as valuable as statistics, and our experience has shown that the perceptions and feelings of the workforce are more readily given to strangers rather than colleagues.

4. Concentrate on people

Diversity is about capitalising on individual approaches to life and styles of work. It is about developing personal creativity and bringing the mixture together for the benefit of all. It aims to realise the potential of each individual.

Diversity programmes examine the value of existing stereotypes, questioning unhelpful grouping and assertions such as ‘What women think is…’, ‘What black people want is…’ and ‘What older people feel is…’. They encourage individuality while recognising the effects of different cultural backgrounds.

The first step of a solution may well be identifying under-represented sections of the community, and may even involve setting agreed targets for recruitment and promotion, but these must never become an end in themselves. Indeed they can be counterproductive if employees sense an element of favouritism.

Other solutions may be to develop a programme to change people’s attitudes. We recently worked with a large multinational oil company. One of their teams was made up predominately of Western Europeans and Americans. It was highly successful, had a strong culture and most people enjoyed working in it. However, research showed that potential recruits were put off from applying by what they perceived as an exclusive team culture.

The challenge was to feed these findings back to the team, without damaging all that was good and successful about the way they worked. The solution was to develop an absorbing fictional account of how the team would look from the outside. Playing back these perceptions to the team by use of a piece of theatre helped them to realise how they were seen.

For other organisations, a different intervention might be more suitable. This could be through video, over the Intranet, at a company-wide conference or by inserting short diversity sessions into all training programmes. Other solutions may include greater community contact, specialist training for HR staff or looking for opportunities for more flexible working practices.

5. Get buy-in from all people all of the time

As with any business change process, it is important that the programme is led by senior figures. Communication is vital – employees need to be convinced of the need for change – not see this as ‘another HR initiative’.

6. How did you do?

Finally, the process needs to be ongoing and subject to regular measurement – don’t expect a change overnight. A second (or even annual) audit may be necessary

MaST International will be hosting a seminar at HRD 2003 on Tuesday 8th April at 10.45am entitled “Thinking the same – differently”. At the seminar, MaST will specifically examine how to measure a culture.

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