By Devan Moonsamy

Diversity is everywhere. Nations across the globe, big and small cities and towns are all either highly cosmopolitan or fast getting that way. In China, for example, a country that has been somewhat closed to the outside world, there are over 50 distinct ethnic groups who all need to be accommodated in employment and society in general.

South Africa has a similar situation in terms of the sheer number of ethnic groups, as well as increasing numbers of people with very mixed heritages. We need to be alive to this and display flexibility in how we approach and accommodate all kinds of staff members and customers. We must remind ourselves that each individual’s needs and norms can differ, and each one is equally valid.

If we aren’t careful and thoughtful in how we approach people of cultures, languages, races, ethnic, sexuality or gender groups different to our own, we will land up with many unhappy people and endless friction. In business, we will be less productive, and employees will be disengaged at work. It is too much of a risk to ignore the realities of diversity in terms of employee and customer satisfaction, profitability, business risk, and company reputation.

Nobody wants a PR nightmare, but it happens all the time, and to the big players one would expect to be the more progressive among us. Some of the biggest PR disasters last year include Google’s gender pay gap, sexism in the African Union, and H&M’s racially offensive advertising. Diversity is a reality, but it will not be a blessing, and we will not reach an equitable situation whereby people of all demographic groups are afforded equal rights and treatment unless we put in the effort.

Equitable diversity is not a myth or an unachievable goal. It may be difficult to get everyone on board at first, but a strong diversity strategy tailored to your company or department is a powerful tool. To get anywhere worth going, one must first have a plan, a roadmap or a set of guidelines to follow which speak to the conditions of your industry and your office politics as well.

If you are in the education sector, you need to ensure that people of all demographic groups benefit from the learning experience and that your staff know how to help students of different abilities. In many instances, we still see too many white male managers and too many black employees in low-paying entry-level positions.

Women are still locked out of senior management and not taken seriously in some organisations. People with disabilities are also too rarely seen in the work environment compared to the number of people with disabilities who can work.

The way to change this is through a BEE recruiting system and training up people of colour (this term is used to refer to black people as well as coloured and Asian people who have been all been historically disadvantaged) and other minority or marginalised groups to fill management and decision-making roles where they, in turn, can mentor other people of colour, and further drive equitable recruitment processes.

Once a company attracts more diverse employees into positions at all levels, we have to make sure they want to stay. We cannot lose good employees who represent a variety of demographic groups due to maltreatment from fellow staff members or a lack of opportunities. This is simply unacceptable, and we must thus work actively to protect their interests.

Some of the most successful companies in the area of diversity have so much to teach us. In my recent book, Racism, Classism, Sexism, And The Other ISMs That Divide Us, we analyse the methods used by various companies to achieve equitable diversity. I include an adapted extract here on a highly successful method that can be implemented in any company.

Task forces and project teams have been found to be the most effective means of managing diversity and maximising its value, especially when the teams are self-managed as much as possible. Task forces or project teams are created to address obstacles related to diversity and to increase equitable representation in the company. Some focus areas for a task force can be ‘recruitment and mentoring initiatives for professionals and middle managers, working specifically toward measurable goals for minorities’ (Dobbin & Kalev, 2016).

Corporate diversity task forces help promote social accountability, and they can go much further than recruitment. They can also monitor the progress of women, black and other groups that can be side-lined to ensure they are trained, well treated and thus retained. Mentorship programmes also work well when a mentor is assigned someone to assist rather than allowing them to choose their own mentees. This ensures that those who need mentoring most get it.

As an example of what task forces can do, Deloitte created a task force a few years ago which found that driving for transparency in decision-making was a key way to get positive results for diversity goals. IBM also launched hugely successful task forces in the mid-1990s, each focused on a different group including a specific task force dedicated to help promote lesbian and gay people in the workplace. ‘The goal of the initiative was to uncover and understand differences among the groups and find ways to appeal to a broader set of employees and customers,’ and thus, ‘the IBM of today looks very different from the IBM of 1995’ (Thomas, 2004). Diversity task-forces became a pillar of the company’s HR strategy. The number of IBM female executives worldwide increased by 370%; ethnic minorities by 233%; LGBT executives rose by 733%; and those with disabilities more than tripled.

We can thus see the incredible value that dedicated task teams can achieve. It is these types of diversity initiatives which have kept progressive companies such as IBM and Deloitte going strong through the decades.

Devan Moonsamy is the author of Racism, Classism, Sexism, And The Other ISMs That Divide Us, available from the ICHAF Training Institute.

The book tackles contemporary issues in the South African workplace, including a variety of diversity-related challenges and how these can be addressed. It is an excellent guide for managers to harnessing diversity for success.

ICHAF offers SETA-approved training in business skills, computer use, and soft skills. Devan specialises in conflict and diversity management, and regularly conducts seminars on these issues for corporates. To book a seminar with Devan or for other training courses, please use the contact details below.

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