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Is it the law to be diverse and inclusive as a business owner?

For the second year, organisations with more that 250 employees are expected to publish their UK gender pay gap data by 4th April 2019.

In June 2017, 175 CEOs in the US joined forces in a new alliance: CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion. Featuring many of the world’s largest organisations – and businesses such as Walmart, that I have personally worked with – this new alliance is the largest statement to date that global business is now serious about diversity and inclusion.

This public and top-level commitment is vital because at present, there is no law that obliges organisations to be diverse and inclusive. Corporate mandate is essential to change.

The truth is that the legal imperative cannot be the only driver that obliges organisations to be diverse and inclusive. Diversity and inclusion cannot just be an exercise in corporate compliance. It has to affect hearts and minds so that people behave differently towards one another in the workplace, irrespective of the law.

There is of course legislation that addresses discrimination, and in the UK, the Equality Act 2010 is the primary statute that protects individuals in the workplace based on nine protected characteristics that includes race, age, gender, disability and religious belief.

The challenge is that while this legislation enables individuals to take a business to task for discrimination – for example, I was excluded from that training because of my age, or, I did not get that promotion because I was on maternity leave – it does not guarantee nor imply that organisations will be either diverse or inclusive because this requires behavioural change.

I was recently comparing the evolution to best practice in diversity and inclusion with the institutionalisation of health and safety in the workplace over the past 30 to 40 years. Health and safety, which began as an exercise in corporate social responsibility, just like diversity, is now inescapable, enshrined in statute, core to business strategy and the function of every department. Diversity and inclusion is not yet there.

Partly this is due to a raft of detailed legislation and the result is that health and safety is now ingrained in business operations as well as business culture. More importantly though the message relates to all of us.

Businesses now recognise that the health and safety of people is critical to success, and this is so fundamental to belief that it starts to extend to new areas automatically.

Ben Congleton, CEO of Palo Alto firm Olark Live Chat recently earned global praise when his positive response to an employee telling her team that she was taking two days off for mental health reasons went viral. He wrote, ‘I cannot believe this is not standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.’

While the business benefits of diversity and inclusion – even the ROI of diversity and inclusion – are increasingly familiar through studies and case studies from the world’s most respected and august bodies, it is still a long way from being the norm for most organisations.

At GDP, we predict that it will take more initiatives such as the call to action from 175 CEOs in the USA backed up by further shifts in legislation to turn a similar dial on diversity and inclusion and ensure that it becomes embedded in the corporate mind-set.

The challenge is that many of the factors that stop organisations from being both diverse and inclusive are hidden beneath the surface and can be hard to identify, let alone change.

“We recruit women but they never seem to apply for promotion.”

“We post job recruitment ads all over the internet but somehow we always seem to get white male applicants from Russell Group or Ivy League universities.”

We hear these types of statements from lots of companies that are genuinely making an effort to be truly open to all but are finding that it’s harder to do this than they may think. The intention to be diverse and inclusive is there. But the real steps to achieve it can be elusive and surprising.

One key reason for this is unconscious bias, a human trait that we all share, and which means that we tend to gravitate to people, practices and processes that we know and understand.

It’s the reason why at a networking event, men tend to talk to men and women to women. Because this is our comfort zone. We use likability and trust which is often linked to our affinity bias to identify more with and gravitate towards those who belong in our inner circle than those who don’t.

This behaviour doesn’t help business – it doesn’t even help these individuals to progress are far as they could.

But it is human nature and we can’t help it.

And it is precisely the reason why organisations need help to ensure their journey to successful diversity, inclusion and bias reduction is as quick and pain free as possible while being authentic, action-orientated and sustainable overtime.

Through a process of research, diagnosis, facilitation, training, communications and de-bias of organisational policies, processes and practices, businesses can identify simple and effective strategies that genuinely drive diversity and inclusion.

This could be by building relationships with a wider group of universities, publishing job ads in new locations – or making a point of speaking to talented female employees when a promotion is posted to encourage them to apply.

CEO endorsement for diversity and inclusion change programmes is critical. I cheered when I read that 175 CEOs in the US had all signed up to an alliance. I am excited that corporates are committing to action.

However, there needs to be buy-in from the whole organisation or the initiatives will not succeed as well.

Here middle managers are key – we actually need a middle managers’ alliance as much as a CEO alliance for diversity and inclusion to become general business practice! The ‘permafrost’ in the middle needs to be incentivised and motivated to take part in the journey to inclusion and see the benefits.

With a raised eyebrow, rolling eye-balls, a forced smile, or a muttered “humph”, managers through organisational layers can quickly dilute the impetus of any corporate initiative.

This is where I would say more incentives, legislation, benchmarking, audit and scrutiny could potentially help. Perhaps organisations need sticks and carrots as much as individuals do in order to fully benefit from changes that make business and ethical sense.

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Creative and advertising businesses are turning to diversity and inclusion as the next step in their business journey.

Some companies are already planning change. At GDP, we have recently had an interest in D&I workshops and seminars from advertising, media, and publishing groups. We have also advised many leading brands on how to ensure they promote a positive message in relation to diversity and inclusion.

Given the often “anti-establishment” and free image of the creative sector – people of all appearances dressed however they wish in offices that look more like a club than a corporation – it may come as a surprise to hear that the data shows this sector is neither very diverse nor very inclusive.

To lead change, many of its senior leaders are making statements about the importance of diversity and inclusion.

A good example is a recent article in Campaign which quoted Interpublic CEO Michael Roth reflecting on diversity: “While he lauded the progress made in increasing the number of women in leadership, he said there needs to be more of an effort to improve the representation of African-American women. Just 1 per cent of female agency leaders are black women. ‘That’s insane given who the marketplace is.’”

It’s not just the agencies. Brands are also adapting and creating stories in their advertising and communications that include a wider, more diverse audience in a truly authentic way. The results have won awards and are genuinely impactful – no tokenism here.

The result is that through these stories and images, our media is now representing society more fully and this is an important next step given the role that it plays in shaping attitudes.

The potential for change is very exciting.

And of course, there is a ‘but’.

The journey a business needs to take to change its culture to become truly diverse and inclusive is tougher than either making speeches or creating ads that feature a wider spectrum of society as they truly are.

Becoming a diverse and inclusive business almost always means fundamental change. It’s not about getting a team of consultants in who create a report. It’s not about having training programmes and workshops.

The type of programmes that GDP implements are focused on helping companies to see the real barriers to diversity and inclusion in their business. Some of these are “hard” factors: systems, policies, processes, work requirements. Others are “soft” factors around behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs.

The process that is required to confront and make the commitment to change can be challenging and requires a large personal as well as corporate commitment – I describe it as a “cold shower”. It can be unpleasant, uncomfortable and painful depending on many factors including the outlook of the people involved.

Support is essential to make this process vital. Imagine the effort and commitment required to double the percentage of black agency leaders from just a meager one to two per cent. No company or sector can do this alone: help and nurture are essential to make it happen, as well as leadership.

Or as we like to call it at GDP, the comforting “warm bath” after the shock of the “cold shower”.

The “warm bath” is designed to make the process of becoming a diverse and inclusive company as easy as possible for organisations. Otherwise, there is the risk that it just won’t happen. That other priorities will take over and nothing will change, despite the speeches and the good intentions.

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Inclusive work cultures engage the whole employee to get the most of their potential contribution.

Time and again, organisations see that the best business solutions come from diverse teams working effectively together. But true diversity means engaging the whole person, not just a part.

I once worked on a project in Asia to identify solutions for one of the biggest challenges in the world. It assembled the foremost minds in this sector all focussed on food security. The depth of experience in the room was formidable: scientists, economists, agronomists, business magnates.

My brief was to facilitate and to guide the team towards finding breakthrough solutions.

On day one there was a lot of posturing and peacocking. The delegates spent much of it intellectually dissecting the topic but we weren’t coming up with any breakthrough solutions. We were getting nowhere.

I discussed the day’s events each evening with my driver, Sanjay who also attended so he could be on call to ensure I had access to the hotel.

I knew it was time to make an intervention but I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I bring in a team of consultants to channel the knowledge, experience and colossal IQ of the team? Should I bring in further expertise?

I needed a fresh perspective. Whilst reflecting on the day and thinking of the next steps I asked Sanjay to share his observations. After all, he was in the room too. Amazingly his insights gave me a new perspective. Turns out we had more experts than we thought we did.

Suddenly I knew what to do.

The next day I introduced Sanjay to the discussion. Understandably, he was nervous and worried about being exposed or embarrassed. I assured him he would be involved and I would ensure he would be comfortable.

The discussion continued all day, but still, there were no breakthrough solutions.

Then on the following day, one emerged. It didn’t come from any of the experts.

The first breakthrough solution came from Sanjay.

And the reason he came up with the solution was because he was the only person in the room who had ever fully confronted the problem we were trying to solve.

Everyone else came from an elite background. No one had faced food insecurity. Except for Sanjay, my driver who faced it every day.

He was able to suggest a breakthrough solution because he brought the whole of his experience and life challenges to solving the task. He had a fresh mind, clear of any intellectual clutter.

He didn’t leave half of himself at the door because during that event, he was an active participant and my role was to create an inclusive environment.

Because he was given a voice he was able to perform at the highest level in an extremely high performing group. Not because of his education. Not because of his track record or his professional experience. He found the solution because of his life experience.

Notions of professionalism often create a culture that encourages people to separate their work from their private life.

History shows us that most of the best solutions come outside of work.

Newton devised his theory of gravity after witnessing an apple falling from a tree in his mother’s garden in Lincolnshire.

Who hasn’t had a wonderful work insight when we are chatting to our kids, or out for a walk or cooking a meal?

Personal and private is as important to the success of a company as professional.

In fact, sometimes it’s the difference between going round and round in circles and having the breakthrough moment that unlocks innovation and helps to solve seemingly complex challenges.

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The shocking and fascinating revelation of the astronomical salaries commanded by some of the BBC’s ‘top talent’, as well as the predominance of white and male presenters among the top 20 earners has perhaps eclipsed the reality that in barely six months, companies across the UK will be expected to publish their own pay gap figures. Potentially, this could become something of a cautionary tale for the rest of us in only a few months.

With no BAME presenters in the top 20 and the top earning man (Chris Evans) being paid almost five times as much as the most highly paid woman (Claudia Winkleman at number seven), it seems a highly pertinent time to ask, what should the BBC do next?

This would be my action plan for the Corporation:

  • The revelations have sparked controversy and criticism but remember that there is a virtue in transparency. Don’t be defensive when criticised and don’t rush to change until you have a viable solution in place that supports the Corporation’s long-term goals.
  • Move swiftly to close gender gaps that have no valid reason. This may be further down the salary scale but is an effective first step while bigger issues are resolved.
  • Don’t be immobilised by the scrutiny: be proactive and purposeful in your actions. Commit to three concrete actions and deliver against them, then review and find the next three.
  • Communicate your actions regularly to ensure this story is seen a spur to real positive action. Continue to communicate the real challenges you are facing and how you are looking to overcome them.
  • Open up the debate around diversity internally then work to be a ‘do as I do’ organisation.
  • Use this opportunity to bias proof all policies and procedures for bias and look for ways to eliminate this. Introduce across the board unconscious bias training and measure its effectiveness.
  • Carry out a diversity root cause analysis talk to your female/BAME employees and understand their experiences and perspectives.
  • Encourage those BAME/female to become part of the solution, they will be your most effective ambassadors if you do or your most fervent critics if you don’t, take your pick. Ensure you bring all along with you to ensure you achieve your objectives.
  • Leaders must be bold in their actions and focus on how they can genuinely impact change down through organisational tiers. Build the confidence of decision makers and middle managers. Set the tone at the top.
  • Get help. Changing policies, procedures and processes is hard enough. Changing mind-sets or behaviours is harder. Sometimes it takes a fresh perspective to get people to truly modify their behaviours.

There is no question that it will be painful for the BBC in the interim but if there is a genuine and sincere intention to change then it is possible to turn the situation around and to demonstrate true leadership.

We are all working together to rewrite an organisational rule-book that has been steadfast for decades but has no further place in the 20th century. Change is possible if we stop pointing fingers, encourage transparency and then once we are aware of the state, play to work collaboratively to plug the gap.

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