Many employment experts, career gurus and companies have been quick to bang the drum for diversity and inclusion. Yet evidence from recent government-backed reports such as the McGregor-Smith Review have revealed that discrimination and bias towards Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) employees exists in a high proportion of UK workplaces.
This makes career progression for these individuals particularly difficult, no matter how many minority staff an employer might take on.
With the report both claiming that the UK economy could stand to be boosted by as much as £24bn if employers did more to support the professional development of their BAME employees, and recommending greater levels of transparency on company diversity statistics, employers are simultaneously under pressure and motivated to ensure their workforces are operating as equally and openly as possible.
However, the business case for diversity has been consistently oversimplified and is all too often misunderstood by those at the forefront of industry, leading to greater levels of under-representation and stilted career advancement for minority and marginalised professionals.
A 2013 government report entitled The Business Case for Equality and Diversity sets out the core problem, and the solution, very simply. In a comprehensive review of the key economic evidence that underpins the business benefits of equality, diversity and inclusion, the report concludes: “There is no single approach that all businesses can adopt to ensure equality and diversity are beneficial. To be effective, equality and diversity need to be embedded in the business strategy.”
In short, to expect greater profits and productivity as a result of simply increasing diversity statistics is short-sighted. Business leaders must instead pay greater attention to the inner workings of their organisations and invest in designing business cases for diversity which meet their organisation’s specific needs and circumstances.
At the root of such initiatives lies one common ingredient: understanding and improving the lived experiences of minority professionals within the workplace.
Common social identity
My own research—a three-year investigation into the experiences of BAME and minority ethnic professionals in the UK and USA, and the impact of their racial and ethnic identities upon their professional development—sought to do just this. It found that, far from harnessing the different experiences and backgrounds of minority employees to enhance business development, common workplace culture pressured some BAME employees to “manage” their racial identities in order to mitigate any potential negative stereotypes. In some cases, BAME individuals even chose not to congregate so as not to attract attention.
However, my research also suggests that the development of such “employee resource groups”—voluntary groups of employees whose members share a common social identity, value or interest—has a vital role to play in developing the desired diversely inclusive workplace.
This is because, when run effectively, such networks provide a means to advocate for equality and inclusion. As such, the mismanagement, or discouragement, of these collectives can contribute to both individual and organisational stagnation.
Five key principles
For companies looking to boost their diversity stats—and their performance—there are five key principles that employers must introduce in order to better leverage the employee resource groups in their organisations.
- Connect: Though employee resource groups can provide members with a greater sense of inclusion, this often does not extend beyond the group to the wider organisation. Business leaders must act to encourage wider engagement and develop connections between groups within an organisation, fostering initiatives through which a greater sense of community can be achieved.
- Redefine: Traditional approaches to mentoring and career development must be routinely reviewed, to determine their reach and effectiveness and to identify those who might be missing out on their benefits, and updated with more contemporary measures. For example, introducing sessions on how to navigate the organisation and negotiate with superiors can help to improve the performance, ability and satisfaction of marginalised workers.
- Engage: Beyond encouraging employee resource groups to establish better, mutually beneficial relationships with other employee groups and with clients, employers must also help to create opportunities for these groups to communicate their ideas and values beyond existing stakeholders to improve company cohesion and performance. However, this is only possible when the group is supported sufficiently internally, and can effectively demonstrate its value to others.
- Speak: Groups should be encouraged and empowered to develop a voice outside of the organisation, to aid efforts to improve company visibility in new networks and markets, to improve recruitment practices, and help to enhance the company’s reputation as a recognised leader in equality.
- Transform: The transformation of an employee resource group to a business resource group occurs when members are able to use their valuable cultural expertise and insights to contribute to the day-to-day operational functions of a company. If done properly, this can provide a competitive advantage in engaging with new markets, finding and on-boarding new talent and even aid business negotiations.
Embedding a diverse, inclusive culture
To those working routinely in the promotion and development of talent in their respective industries, the above steps are already well understood and supported. But more needs to be done at the top level to ensure that a culture of diversity and inclusion becomes firmly embedded within a company’s ethos.
Kate Headley, director of the Clear Company, an HR and diversity consultancy, agrees that businesses must do more to foster a culture of openness, if they are to reap the benefits that an inclusive workplace offers.
“Initiatives designed to attract diverse jobseekers are worthless without a culture that is conducive to retaining this talent,” she says. “Promoting inclusiveness must begin in recruitment, but new recruits must also land in an organisation which they believe is representative of the employer value proposition they have been sold if they are to reach their full potential.
“At a time when employment levels sit close to record highs, organisations which tap into under-utilised talent pools will side-step the competition to access sought-after skills and expertise,” she says.
And it is this competitive edge that can be lost all too easily if companies fail to eradicate these barriers. Employee resource groups represent a huge opportunity for organisations, but only time will tell how they are used.
Dr Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey is an expert in Employment Relations and Organisational Behaviour, and has taught leadership topics at the London School of Economics Department of Management.