04 Aug. 2016 | Comments (0)

Is it time for Diversity & Inclusion to revisit its roots and refocus on equality? The question strikes me as important in the light of events in the US, UK and other countries exposing the deep divisions that persist in society and the worrying rise in intolerance.

Recent incidents in the US have again laid bare the divide in everyday life experiences between African Americans and whites. In the UK, the vote in favour of Brexit revealed sharp splits between generations, regions, haves and have-nots, the socio-political establishment and the rest of the country. Nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise in many parts of Europe.

While governments should take the lead in handling these explosive events, companies must not shirk their responsibility, and their self-interest, in helping to address the complex underlying causes. D&I could play the role of catalyst, but only if it broadens its scope to build a wide coalition for action.

D&I evolved from the movements for civil rights and equality of the 1960s and 1970s. But that early mission has been relegated in recent years as companies have focused their diversity efforts on “top talent” - the boardroom, the executive committee, and the pipeline that feeds them. Equality is now a matter for compliance, rather than a movement for change. The people who serve at the bottom of the corporate pyramid, and in the further reaches of the supply chain, are generally not part of the D&I equation.

Companies are, of course, not blind to the tensions and horrors afflicting society. D&I leaders in several major US businesses collaborated with colleagues in security, employee wellbeing, CSR and communications to provide donations and practical support after the appalling massacre in Orlando in June. This approach could be usefully extended to long-term coalitions to tackle the roots of discrimination and inequality.

Recruitment is an obvious place to start. Some businesses are now keenly aware that their hiring practices perpetuate elitism by drawing from the same schools and universities, reproducing leaders from a privileged minority who share a worldview. Widening recruitment to universities beyond “the usual suspects” and offering placements to young people from deprived areas are two ways being adopted to redress this.

Businesses can also enhance their reputation as employers by taking a very deliberate stand on inclusion. I’m grateful to Rebekah Steele, a senior fellow for The Conference Board, for the example of Dolphin Digital Technologies, a Canadian IT consulting company with a policy of recruiting “the most qualified person who is also the least likely to be hired”. The family firm employs people with disabilities and runs a disabilities mentoring day to boost job opportunities and dispel employers’ fears.

Such innovative thinking could be applied by bigger companies to under-represented talent and underserved markets more widely, such as migrants and refugees from the war-ravaged Middle East.

These might seem like drops in the ocean. On a larger scale, D&I leaders could forge links across sectors to tackle social exclusion. In Germany, a striking initiative known as “Joblinge” has brought private, public and voluntary sectors together to prepare disadvantaged young people for employment.

Over 3,300 young people have participated in the six-month programs since Boston Consulting Group and the BMW Foundation launched the initiative in 2008. The organisers say that more than 60% of participants are children of immigrants or refugees, and 70% come from families that depend on welfare. Following the program, 70% of participants obtain jobs, with the vast majority staying in those jobs.

The short-term payback for businesses is that they hire people who bring a different perspective and life experience into the mix, and they enhance their reputation as responsible employers. The long-term payback is that initiatives like these help to build social cohesion and economic stability on which businesses rely for survival and growth.

Equality, diversity and inclusion are complementary approaches to achieving the same goal. They all matter. Like a three-legged stool, if one of them weakens, the sustainability of the others is at risk. Now seems to be a critical time to reinforce the equality “leg” of the stool. 

 

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  • About the Author: Alison Maitland

    Alison Maitland

    Alison Maitland is a Senior Fellow, Human Capital at The Conference Board. In this role, Alison supports the Human Capital Practice which includes The Conference Board Human Capital Exchange™, r…

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