Dispelling the myths of diversity and inclusion practices

Dr Wen Wang, Professor Sibel Yamak, Neil Anderson

Diverse workforces are better enabled to deal with uncertainty, partly because they can respond to employee or customer needs more effectively due to the multiple experiences and perspectives they bring. In two recent studies by CIPD (April 2020) and McKinsey (May2020), over 40% of employers believed investments in diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies helped the business during the pandemic. Given increased challenges and pressure faced by many businesses right now, good D&I should be an asset for increased employee engagement and good will to help.

Whilst there has been progress in D&I practices, given the pandemic’s lingering shadow for almost a year, some organisations are actively pushing D&I efforts to the back burner — creating concern that during downsizing or restructuring situations, discrimination could “creep up”. This is particularly alarming for certain groups, for example, some Black and Asian ethnic groups and those workers aged 50+ had a high infection rate of the virus, some employers may cautiously “avoid” them, leaving organisations open to accusations of discrimination, litigation and negative impacts on their reputation.

We want to explore or dispel the myths within D&I practices through a project by working with the Black Country Chamber of Commerce (championed by Mr. Neil Anderson):

1. To what extent are small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) maintaining their focus on D&I during the prolonged COVID-19 emergency?

As most studies focus on large companies, which are in the public eye and fall under regulatory scrutiny, very little is known about D&I practices and policies within SMEs. Our study’s specific focus is on SMEs based in the Black Country, a post-industrial and cross-cultural demographic setting. Commissioned by Walsall for All and the Department for Work and Pensions, the project is designed to uncover the importance companies place upon D&I, and provide a basis for informed and relevant policy or strategic interventions, and promote the benefits of D&I best practice across the town’s business community.

2. Which D&I strategies are effective in the workplace?

Generally, two approaches can be applied — treat everybody the same and afford access to the same opportunities, or ‘positive equality’ that actively targets under-represented groups. Unsurprisingly, the latter is often more efficient in combating workplace D&I disparities. Positive actions are more readily seen in larger organisations that possess greater resources; whereas SMEs are able to adopt flexible and innovative approaches to suit its context, which is less known. We will explore authentic D&I practices in SMEs.

Meanwhile, it is important to note the different perceptions between those developing and implementing D&I policies and those on the receiving end. Most studies often consider each separately and this impacts the effects of workable polices and D&I practices. In this study, we are surveying both managers and their staff across 200 Walsall businesses (of which, 180 are SMEs) which enables us to validate the findings between each perspective.

During the lockdowns, organisations have generally invested in employee mental health and wellbeing initiatives. These interventions have predominately taken a ‘broad brush’ approach without much consideration for each group’s unique circumstances (e.g. commitments around care or home schooling priorities or shared households with limited workspace available). The study will provide fine-grained insights for future support requirements.

3. How can organisations harness D&I for sustainable­­­ development?

Organisations are increasingly being scrutinised over their environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance by stakeholders. Good D&I practices provide a degree of legitimacy to companies by giving them ‘social license to operate’. Whilst enhancing or improving D&I strategies creates the potential for increased organisational performance, research suggests a diverse workforce is also a potential for conflict, it can lead to a desirable organisation only when a well-crafted D&I strategy is in place. The ACCA & ESRC report emphasises a need for wide support and commitment from senior management as well as practices that suits the organisation. In this project, we take a holistic approach. On the one side, we survey the commitment from top managers, current D&I practices as well as how diverse of the senior management team. On the other side, we collect staff perception of D&I commitment from managers and their evaluation of D&I practices, this will enable us to provide organisations with evidence-based best practices.

To learn more about the project, with a chance to win £250 worthy of prize if eligible, please visit https://blackcountrychamber2.iceblue-web.co.uk/campaigns-projects/walsall-diversity-project/

ICRD is based at @wlv_uni, we care about social justice, positive change, evidence-informed policy and practice, working in partnership to improve lives.