I feel naturally reluctant to write or talk about diversity in the workplace – it feels as though I’m pigeon-holing myself (as an ethnic minority / left-leaning millennial) and to be honest, I find the moral arguments for diversity thoroughly unengaging. My father ran a shop and so never encountered any sort of racist corporate hierarchy and I’ve seldom encountered any form of discrimination myself.
However, one thing which I have found undoubtedly engaging is those small pieces of information or small changes that can result in huge improvements. This idea of ‘marginal gains’ can take effect in anything, from my sport of choice – cricket (it’s truly amazing the difference that sucking a Murray Mint can have on reverse swing), to lifestyle, wellbeing and business.
With reference to the latter, I am intrigued by the excellent work being done in the field of behavioural economics and decision science. These academic disciplines aim to flesh out the mechanics behind choice-architecture – providing an invaluable tool for any business trying to better understand the decisions of its customers and employees.
Diversity within the workplace is an estranged brother (or should that be sister) to this type of insight. It is estranged because the subject has become highly emotive, so that scientific explanations for why people make particular hiring decisions have been largely discarded. Instead modern psychology is applied to less controversial matters, such as counter-intuitive but effective pricing strategies.
More often than not, diversity is treated as a PR issue, rather than something that can reveal and unlock insights about the human mind. Consider, for example, the media storm that recently engulfed Google after an employee wrote a provocative memo criticising the company’s diversity policies. It is clear that the topic has become toxic for many brands.
Looking at diversity through a more scientific prism might be a better way of tackling the problem. Indeed the idea that hiring can be a wholly rational process determined by a rational set of factors needs to be challenged.
Management consultancies like to devise a set of rules for formulating business strategies, but if this was the only way of doing something then logically everyone would copy that protocol. In the same way, a company may think that having a board that is only made up of white males in their 50s and 60s, all of whom are graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, is the best way of doing business.
Such a board may well be capable of delivering an excellent, prudent business strategy, but we can look beyond the demographic make-up to understand why it was set up in that way in the first place. It is certainly worth questioning why such a homogenous board exits in our varied, diverse world – and the potential limitations of this decision-making process.
For example, do the similarities in these people’s backgrounds mean that they are more likely to share the same thought processes and strategic biases? And are these biases valid for the type of company these people are running, or are they detrimental? Certain companies may benefit from having a board weighted towards a particular type of person, but equally they might not. Taking a more scientific view strikes me as being a more worthwhile way of thinking about this issue, rather than resorting to blanket moralising.
The flip-side to these older, predominantly white corporate boards are the younger, more ethnically diverse boards running today’s fast-growing online startups. These businesses are focused on breakthrough innovations and market disruption, as well as a relentless focus on the customer, so in many ways it makes sense to prioritise younger, more diverse hires who share that spirit of entrepreneurialism.
That doesn’t mean, though, that these businesses aren’t missing out on other important skills and viewpoints if they refuse to look at older people with a wealth of business experience during the hiring process.
Unfortunately there are no easy answers here – but there are easy questions, like why is it so difficult to talk about diversity without people feeling uncomfortable? Or why is the narrative about this business issue so immature and incapable of separating the moral case from the business case?
The old adage that ‘visible homogeneity brings groupthink’ is obviously a gross oversimplification. We’re all individuals after all (I know I am!). The point is that homogeneity will bring a certain something – a certain way of doing things that might ultimately not be in the best interests of a business. That is why questioning and examining diversity is important. It forces companies to think again about the world and their place within it.
Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that ‘homogeneity brings a lack of much-needed dissent’ – the point being that in our unpredictable, fast-changing world, dissent is needed to stop businesses becoming complacent. Hopefully my own little act of dissent – namely, writing this article – helps to affirm that view.