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Diversity Matters To Your Business: Here's How To Get It Right

Diverse companies perform better: it's as simple as that. A successful diversity initiative often requires systemic change, but the most important factor is willingness at all levels to work together towards a fairer workplace. Unfortunately, in many UK business sectors - including PR - there is still a way to go to achieve diversity, especially at senior management or board level.

Added on 14.05.2021

US-based consulting firm McKinsey used data from 1000 companies in 12 countries to demonstrate that diversity is sound business practice in the workforce and at executive level in 2018. Yet, two years later in the UK, the 2020 Parker Review found that BAME representation on the boards of top finance companies was minimal, prompting the FCA to make diversity part of its assessment of member firm conduct. Another notable professional body to take action on diversity is the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Diversity in PR & Comms: some way to go

When it comes to the PR and Communications industry, the presence and popularity of networks for women and members of BAME communities (and research they publish or highlight) shows that more needs to be done to make the sector more inclusive.

Women in PR & Comms

Two notable organisations are Women in PR and Women in Public Affairs. Despite their activities (and the fact that 64% in PR are female), the COVID lockdowns provided a reminder that there is still a way to go: the gender pay gap rose from 14% in 2019 to 21% in late 2020 due to the number of women who had to juggle home-schooling and at-home childcare, to the detriment of their careers.

BAME people in PR & Comms

At time of writing, the PRCA report that 91% in PR are white. The 2011 Population Census reported 86% across the UK as white, so even on data from a decade ago it's easy to see that BAME people are under-represented in the industry. Given that the majority of PR businesses are based in larger cities with populations more ethnically diverse than the national average (most notably London), this represents even more of a gap.

Furthermore, recent research commissioned by the UK Black Comms Network and carried out by Opinium revealed, amongst other things, that half of all black people in the industry are never promoted, and are thanked verbally or in writing rather via bonuses and pay rises. UK Black Comms Network and People Like Us continue to lobby for change.

Getting started: not a seminar, but a policy change

Some organisations make the mistake of presenting diversity as a purely HR-driven initiative, or even just a seminar. Instead:

  • it needs to be regarded as a shared journey towards a goal, with a change management roadmap; and
  • it needs to become an integral part of all policies and processes from recruitment onwards.

It's essential that management and senior management do more than just sign off on any new practices, but instead become drivers of the process. From the MD on down, everyone needs to understand their individual and collective responsibilities. These are well summed up by the US-based Harvard Business School study on 'Awareness, Authenticity and Accountability'.

Awareness

Acknowledge that bias could exist within your organisation. Not conscious bias, which is easy to spot, but inherent bias: discrimination that is not immediately apparent to all because it is only seen by those it impacts.

Authenticity

Be prepared to listen, and be committed to where conversations might lead. Truly listening (without comment or judgement) is a powerful skill that all should learn.

Accountability

Own any past behaviour, as an individual or as an organisation. Any measures put in place should be publicised, with feedback sought, to get a dialogue going.

Managing the process effectively

It's well-documented that people react strongly when they feel that their core beliefs are being challenged, and most people have a core belief that they act fairly towards others. This is why diversity initiatives are unlikely to work if run as a 'blame game': it's unpleasant to think that you've been part of an environment that made certain people feel unsafe, unwelcome or unappreciated.

The way to get to success is to appeal to our capacity for empathy. An effective diversity initiative appeals to the best in all of us, by:

  • building bridges and bringing colleagues together via relatable experiences;
  • not singling out individuals for blame, but instead letting them recognise and own their past behaviour;
  • keeping emphasis on how feeling excluded affects well-being, and tapping into our collective desire to make others feel good;
  • identifying areas where current practice creates an environment that is failing people, and putting measures in place to rectify that;
  • creating an environment where everyone feels valued and appreciated and has the opportunity to do their best and be recognised.

Quotas are not the best solution...

When looking to build a more diverse workplace, two obvious areas to pay attention to are recruitment and promotion. Some companies make the mistake of setting quotas in these areas, but this can often be counter-productive. Hiring or promoting a person merely to meet a quota opens up the likelihood of:

  • creating a weak link in a team, or an ineffective lead / manager;
  • creating resentment within the team or organisation once it becomes apparent that the role has not been filled correctly.

In a high stakes, high performance environment, either of these will likely impact the business' bottom line, staff morale and professional reputation. Finally, it's not even fair to the person involved to be given a role they are either not suited for or not ready for: it can damage their career progress and their self-esteem.

... upward mobility is

The way to get to diversity is to create an inclusive and upwardly mobile environment for all employees at all levels. Important parts of this process are:

  • learning to recognise and foster aptitude;
  • providing opportunities to upskill; and
  • making time for delegation and mentoring.

Getting 'fit' wrong leads to less diversity...

Misinterpreting what 'fit' or 'culture fit' means whilst vetting a candidate's suitability can lead to homogenous and non-diverse teams. For hiring managers, fit should never mean 'someone who shares my background' or even 'someone who likes the things I like', because that is likely to lead to 'someone who will have similar ideas to me'.

Lack of a wide perspective is a potential weakness when putting together a team that will be tasked with coming up with creative ideas to resonate with people across all walks of life and build an affinity with a client's brand in as many minds as possible.

Going back to your own brand values and recruiting based on fit with that underlying culture of ideas is the way to sidestep this potential problem and build multi-faceted teams comprised of individuals who will have different skills, traits, expertise and social backgrounds, but who will all share your brand values.

... but diversity is what drives cultural innovation

The UK music scene is celebrated worldwide for being vibrant and inspirational because it is a melting pot where different thoughts and approaches combine and take on a new and shared identity. Two tone and UK ska; the early 80s gay club scene and its impact on pop music; 'Madchester' and the 'Second Summer of Love' in the late 80s; rave music and the UK free festival and party movement in the 90s; dubstep and grime in the last ten years: all of these cultural phenomena have their roots in often marginalised communities who created something with a wider appeal, and not one of them would have existed without a mindset that celebrates our differences.

'Not seeing colour'

When it comes to skin colour, the idea that an organisation or individual 'doesn't see colour' is not a sound approach. However much any one person or company might ignore such differences, there is sadly much of society that does not.

It is far more constructive to acknowledge and embrace our differences.

Only with that baseline is it then possible to determine where these differences might have led to someone being disadvantaged. Put another way, you cannot deal with this sort of prejudice by refusing to acknowledge where it starts, and it starts with someone appearing to be different.

Open and candid conversations about how people differ lead to a collective mindset where all differences are acknowledged and valued equally, and this is how we can genuinely get from exclusivity to inclusivity.

Privilege: what it is, and what it is not

Privilege can be difficult to acknowledge, because a person almost never sees their own. This is where listening to someone who doesn't share your particular privilege can be very powerful.

The importance of personal experience

if you're a man: have you ever heard a woman list the precautions she takes when away from home alone at night, or relate a few of the times she feared for her safety whilst just walking down the street?

If you're white: you've no doubt heard about institutional racism but have you listened to a someone who has experienced it describe how it made them feel?

Some experiences can be upsetting to recount and to hear, but they are far more upsetting to live. Conversations and lived experiences help build awareness.

The most important thing to realise when confronting privilege is that it is not the concept that some people have it easy: we all have our own struggles. Nor is it a desire to shame people: we are all ignorant of that which we don't experience. Instead, it's the concept that your day to day experiences might not be the same as others due to nothing other than the way you look or speak.

Empathy

The idea is that we lend a sympathetic ear, that we are open to sharing, and that we believe others as we would want to be believed ourselves. If we are fortunate to have additional leverage in any area, we use it for the benefit of others, and recognise that we are all allies and advocates for each other and that we all speak out on other peoples' behalf if something seems inconsistent or unfair. The aim is not to replace anyone, but to increase equality and understanding, foster mutual respect, and create an environment where we can all be ourselves.

Creating a safe space 

With this in mind, do be aware of the multi-faceted 'micro-aggressions' that some members of your team might encounter outside or on their way to work, and don't expect them to just 'snap out' of everything at the door.

Indeed, if your workplace is an oasis where there is no prejudice, then you might find people letting off steam because they are in an environment where they feel assured of empathy and respect and feel safe to unburden themselves and confide in others. This is how stronger teams and better workplaces are built.

Other, sometimes overlooked, indicators of an inclusive workplace

Rota collective or shared responsibilities

Keep an eye on whether or not there are any roles that people are slipping into which are outside their job description, such as the same person or people setting up a meeting room, making coffee, going to or picking up the post, taking notes or keeping minutes. If in doubt, rota everything that is a collective responsibility.

Rewarding individuals appropriately

When rewarding an employee be sure that the reward is something that they will actually appreciate. Unless you intimately understand this person, don't take chances. Even a spa day might not be the safe bet you thought it was. If you're not sure, give gifts that give the employee control over their reward.

Vouchers for their choice of an activity day, or at their favourite restaurant might suit some; others might prefer credit they can exchange for clothes, shoes, event tickets, books, or even collectibles on eBay. But there's nothing impersonal about a cash bonus, so long as it's accompanied with a card that conveys your personal gratitude. Cards accompanied by boxes of chocolates or other shareable treats also give your team member the chance to share that good feeling with everyone.

Planning inclusive team events and socials

If you're rewarding your entire team make sure that you're not picking activities that exclude anyone. Cocktail nights are wasted on those who don't enjoy alcohol. After-work or weekend meetups can be difficult for those who need to arrange childcare, and might take people away from their family time or their weekend pursuits. Safer bets include team breakfasts or lunches at establishments that offer a wide choice of cuisine for people with different dietary requirements (gluten-free, vegan, Halal etc).

Final thoughts

The ultimate aim is a feeling of belonging for everyone, and an understanding that no one has to lose so that others can win. At its heart, diversity is really just team-building 101; it's the idea that we are not just happier but also more productive and more successful when everyone can give their best and be seen to be doing so.