Dipping into Diversity – ‘sound bites of thought’ – Diversity through flexibility

When thinking about “diversity and inclusion” I am reminded of the importance of the concept of ‘flexibility’ in its broadest sense which is the enabler to create a truly diverse and inclusive culture in our businesses.

So where is the link between flexibility and diversity? We tend to compartmentalise ‘diversity’ into boxes. We are often not flexible in our approach to diversity and inclusion. Should we call it ‘flexibility and inclusion’ perhaps? When we consider how we should be inclusive about different diverse ‘groups’ – women, LGBTQI, ethnic, disabled, the first thing we do is to put someone into a category or a box. So, if I am a woman and gay, which ‘box’ do I fall into? Next we often tend to ascribe different ‘issues’ that need ‘solving’ to each group. For example, ‘Women need to be more represented at senior level’; ‘LGBTQI need to feel they can be open about their orientation at work’; ‘we need to provide technology to assist the less able bodied’; etc etc. These may all be true, but those of us who aren’t a member of a particular group can find it challenging to truly appreciate the nuances of what people who are ‘other’ really want and need. People often make assumptions, rather than just asking. See Harvard Business Review Survey: What Diversity and Inclusion Policies Do Employees Actually Want?

Of course, it can be challenging to constantly think about whether our rhetoric or our ‘usual’ way of working is resulting in someone else feeling at a disadvantage. So perhaps the reality is all that we actually need is a culture of “everyday flexibility”. A flexible mentality that celebrates difference and enables that difference to thrive in our workplaces, in all its variety and complexity. The human condition is shades of grey not black and white. If you put one diverse group at the forefront of your initiatives your risk alienating everyone else. At its core everyone has some ‘difference’ for which they need openness, acceptance and flexibility. As an example, why is it that if someone wants to go on maternity leave the response is “of course, no problem, you are able to have x weeks off”. But what about the childless person who wants six months off to trek the Andes? “Oh, we are not sure about that, you will have to resign and we will see if we can find a space for you when you get back.” Why is one form of time off acceptable and not another?

Sometimes, organisations put in place some really good diversity and inclusion initiatives, but these can be seen as a tick-box exercise unless the corporate culture really changes and everyone is on-board with the concept of ‘acceptance of all individuals’.

If we agree that building diverse teams is a key to organisational success, then that starts with flexibility in the recruitment process. Traditional thinking hiring companies often try and find a clone of the person who has left to fill a role. Perhaps that person left because they could already do everything that the role required, and they quickly had nothing more to learn? Why not look for Unicorns (see Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes article 5 Signs You’re a “Unicorn” Employee) and fill in their technical gaps with training?

So the whole purpose of diversity and inclusion initiatives is to create flexibility and openness in the workplace. The candidates that I speak to are often just asking for their individual needs listened to and respected. Those needs might be to leave early on some days to collect their children from daycare, it might be feeling comfortable for a man to talk about what he and his husband did at the weekend, or it might be the woman who is supported for further study to catch up to her male counterparts after time off.

We all have biases, we were all brought up with values and views that are different from our neighbours, and we are certainly very unlikely to agree with everyone, but we can all consider being more flexible to the ‘other’ in our organisations and work to ensure that we ask ‘why not?’ in our hiring and promotional decisions more often.

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