How to create a diverse workforce fit for the 21st century


A lot of what we think we know about creating a diverse workforce is wrong – at least according to Harvard University – and they have done a lot of research on this issue – publishing thirteen articles on diversity in 2016 alone.

According to their findings, many businesses are just going through the motions and their diversity policies are not bringing about any real change. Andy Gooday is Managing Director of Round Peg Search, an executive search agency specializing in the consumer goods sector. Here, he examines Harvard University’s results and considers some of the policies that employers should be implementing in order to create a truly diverse workplace.

With Hollywood’s Time’s Up campaign and issues around gender pay parity topping the news agenda, creating a diverse workforce that encompasses gender, race, LGBT and cross-cultural equality is more relevant for employers than ever before.

Workplace diversity is important, not just from a parity point of view but also because, as the Harvard research shows, diverse teams perform better, are more creative, have less friction and teams with higher than average proportions of women perform disproportionately better.

Despite the evidence, biased behaviours are still rife in the workplace and can take many forms including:

Promotion choices – Where positive or negative bias means the most qualified employee is not appointed chosen for an internal promotion.

Recruitment choices – Where positive or negative bias means the most qualified candidate is not appointed chosen for a vacancy.

Pay disparity – Where a particular group is either given preferential rates of pay or lower rates of pay than the rest of the workforce. This is the bias that has recently been uncovered at the BBC, when it was uncovered that male presenters were paid far higher salaries than female presenters.

Bullying – Where someone is bullied because they are in a minority group or different in someway to the wider workforce.

Being ‘Mommy-Tracked’ – The practice of marginalizing the responsibilities or scope of a role filled by women, when they return from maternity leave

The reality of the modern workplace is that senior management and directors still tend to be white and male. People from minority groups have found it difficult to break this deadlock even against outside candidates whose chance of success is statistically lower. Depressingly, Harvard’s research showed that if there’s only one woman in your candidate pool when recruiting for a role, there is statistically no chance she’ll be hired.

What can Managers do to create a diverse workforce?

For many employers, operating a diversity policy simply means setting up diversity training, particularly for key roles with team management and hiring responsibility.

Interestingly Harvard’s research revealed that this usually has a negative effect – Managers often unconsciously rebel against being told ‘what to do”.

People going through training are easily taught to answer the questions correctly but within a day or two return back to how they previously were.

Despite these poor results, most of the Fortune 500 and almost half of mid-size firms surveyed, used some sort of diversity training.

So if training is not the right approach, how can businesses start to bring about real change? There are a variety of easy to implement and low-cost tactics that are far more effective than standard training programmes, where companies place the focus less on ‘control tactics’ and more on engaging managers to consider the diversity issue themselves. For example:

Exposing all managers and decision makers to as much on-the-job contact with women and minority workers as possible. Harvard’s research showed that where managers spent more time with women and minority workers they learned about the attributes and strengths these groups offered. They started to see the advantages of differing perspectives, personalities and experiences and become influencers across the business as well as champions of specific individuals.

Exposing employees to as much diversity as possible through groups such as:
Cross Business Diversity Task Forces
Mentoring / coaching programmes
Cross Business Project Teams

Creating “social pressure” through transparent reporting of pro-diversity goals. This taps into people’s desire to be seen to be doing the right thing and looking fair-minded. The double-edged sword of managers knowing at the back-of-their mind that the entire work-force will see their actions and the work-force seeing honesty about what is happening, helps to bring diversity improvements and grow trust.

Defining job vacancies, not just on qualifications and technical skills but on the competencies needed for the role. Teaching employers to avoid using exclusive criteria such as ‘drive’, ‘competitiveness’ or ‘assertiveness’ which may reflect gender or other bias.

Showing flexibility as to how the role should be filled to avoid a narrow definition of suitability for the post.

Breaking the over reliance on CV sifting as the only measure of suitability for a role. Personal Profile testing early on in the recruitment process can help reduce any unconscious bias created by CV sifting. Using personal profile techniques as part of the decision making process adds in an element that gives managers an objective, non-discriminatory measure reducing the opportunity for unconscious bias to creep in.

Avoid leaving hiring decisions to one person. Ensure that there is a diverse board of people interviewing candidates and that group decisions are made based on an agreed list of skills and abilities demonstrated.

The Harvard Research shows that we need to be re-examining how we create a truly diverse workplace. Employers need to work actively to bring about real change right through from recruitment to internal promotions. Diversity policies should not just be a tick box exercise but something that, as the Harvard Research shows, leads to better performance and a happier, fairer workplace.