SUBSCRIBE: Newsletter

Human Resources



in Singapore by

The business of equality

Hong Kong HR Masterclass Series: 27th March Strengthening the mental resilience and wellbeing of employees -
improving employee engagement, talent retention and organisational productivity.
Register now here

Workforce diversity is widely accepted as the key to business success, but ignoring the need to enhance inclusion is a “classic diversity mistake”. Sabrina Zolkifi talks to leaders who have grasped the true business power of diversity.

For years, corporate and human resources circles have been buzzing with research findings which suggest a more diverse organisation – be it from the perspective of gender, race, generational or sexual orientation, among others – raises productivity, morale and profit levels in companies.

This is great news for businesses that have strong diversion policies and programmes. But what many organisations are starting to realise is it is one thing to have diversity, and another altogether to ensure there is inclusion.

“Diversity is getting the mix together, while inclusion is getting that mix to work together,” Leona Tan, executive director of community affairs and diversity adviser for UBS Asia Pacific, says.

Companies which only focus on diversity and not inclusion are also putting themselves at a disadvantage, as that approach could result in the exact opposite of the intended goal: Positive discrimination.

This was a concern Alex Morris, a member of Arup’s office diversity committee, had to address when he relocated to the Singapore office three years ago.

“Quite a few of the professional LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) networks that I am aware of, including ones here in Singapore, are very much focused on the LGBT community,” he says. “That is of course important, because it is about building support networks and providing people with a safe space to grow their confidence in a professional setting, but that doesn’t create a more inclusive workplace.”

“In a way, it creates a less inclusive workplace because you end up creating cliques. It’s incredibly important to complement any event that is very LGBT-focused with one that is more inclusive of the straight allies.”

This need to include those outside the majority – whatever that majority could be – is highly critical in creating a truly diverse and inclusive workforce.

Engaging differences

Companies which focus solely on getting the right mix of employees without realising why they’re doing it, or how a multifarious workforce can contribute to the organisation, is making a “classic diversity mistake”, says Todd Sears, founder of Out on the Street, a forum aimed at engaging discussions among gay and straight leaders within the financial sector.

“That’s what I call Diversity 1.0, where you’re just managing diversity,” Sears says.

“What companies should be doing is engaging differences. That difference could be anything from race, gender, sexual orientation to national origin. Your goal should be to create diversity of thought and perspective, not just race and gender; only then can you achieve inclusion.”

He adds that by focusing on the minority, companies are sending two very incorrect messages into the workforce.

“One, you’re telling the men that you don’t value them because there are too many of them, and two, you’re telling the women you only value them because of their gender. Neither of those messages creates inclusion.”

This is something Tan agrees with, and adds UBS encourages employees to bring their whole self to work.

“When you walk into the office, you walk in with that difference, and we embrace and capitalise on that difference,” she says, adding it is that diversity that allows organisations to see problems and opportunities from different perspectives.

“Everyone has a different way of looking at things, so we encourage them to disregard differences, and everyone has a place at the table to speak and be heard.”

However, managing that balance between diversity and inclusion can be tricky.

Quotas versus targets

To many, one solution to solving the challenge of diversity in the office is imposing quotas.

Beginning 2016, German companies are expected to have 30% of positions on their supervisory boards to be reserved for women, similar to Malaysia’s 2011 call for companies to have 30% female representation in decision making roles.

India’s Ministry of Corporate Affairs also proposed organisations with five or more independent board directors have at least one woman.

However, the implementation of quotas hasn’t gone down well with many other companies and countries, and Moira Roberts, managing director of HR at UBS, believes it might be better for companies to set aspirational targets instead.

“We definitely don’t do quotas, but we have key performance indicators and measures of what we think is acceptable within a certain range, but it is not as straightforward as setting a percentage rate,” Roberts says.

Morris echoes her sentiments, and reinforces the belief that “diversity and inclusion are very much about meritocracy”.

“As soon as you start imposing quotas, there are going to be a lot of people who will rightly be quite resentful of that, and asking if a person who is not as good at their job only got the promotion because he was gay or she was a woman.”

In order to make sure diversity targets being set are in the best interests of both the employees and the organisation, having feedback and employee data is key.

“We would look at statistics, both historical and moving forward, and see if they are at acceptable levels and intervening as needed,” Roberts says.

Tan adds as an example, she looks at the numbers of returning mothers. If the number goes up, they might increase the number of nursing rooms.

“Or looking at age diversity and the different generations we have – a baby boomer who is raising a Gen Y child at home will treat a Gen Y employee very differently,” she says.

This is where educating managers comes in handy, Roberts says, as well as the need to re-evaluate the workforce, looking at the company’s population and addressing the issues accordingly.

The method of delivering diversity programmes can also be the difference between success and failure.

Tailoring to diversity demands

Joe Tofield, head of diversity at the British Council, says before he joined the company last year, the organisation’s diversity efforts were not as engage as they are now.

“In the past few years, we were doing things such as encouraging staff to bring food from their home countries or wearing their cultural outfits,” Tofield says.

“Since I joined in April 2013, I’ve moved more towards doing talks with staff and bringing speakers in – things that will be more interesting for staff which may also help them in their actual day-to-day life as well.”

Jolene Huang, the British Council’s regional HR manager, adds: “Before Joe came onboard, it was much more about increasing awareness. What he’s done now is to bring it to a different level where it’s embedded into the way we do things.”

Tofield added he was also very conscious about not “saying to staff ‘This is how you should think’ or ‘This is how you do things'”, especially when it came to an event the British Council hosted with Pink Dot, a non-profit organisation which supports LGBT rights in Singapore.

“I pitched it as an event where staff can learn about why Pink Dot is here, and the reasons behind their events. I just wanted staff to know more about Pink Dot and make their own decisions.”

Another example of a diversity event Tofield hosted last year was a two-hour seminar conducted by those who are hearing impaired.

“They shared about the types of hearing loss, and because we do have students who are hearing impaired, a few of our teaching staff who attended the event were able to learn more about that,” he says. “It ticks that box on diversity, but it also helps staff with their daily work.”

As with UBS, the diversity committee at the British Council sits outside the HR function, a move both companies believe is beneficial to the cause.

“HR keeps in touch with what is going on in, although I’m not part of the diversity team,” Huang says.

But as HR, we do make sure diversity is embedded in our processes.

This is done through ensuring the company’s hiring practices are fair and providing equal employment opportunities, which Huang adds “are not part of a tick-and-check box, but really part of how we work here at the British Council”.

The British Council’s recruitment processes reflect the company’s belief in fair hiring practices, which in turn drives diversity.

“There are three parts to the recruitment form. Part one is on personal particulars, part two is the resume, and part three includes some of the other questions we ask,” Huang says. “Part two is the only portion we give the hiring managers, so they only hire based on qualifications and experience.”

Thinking outside the box

UBS’s Tan says one advantage of having a diversity and inclusion function outside of HR is the ability to fully focus on her role.

“As half a person, there is only so much you can do,” she says. “We have 2,300 full time employees in Singapore so the diversity and inclusion function does need collaborators and partners, and even though diversity and inclusion is an HR tool, it’s executed into the business through people like me.”

Tofield says leaders keen on building stronger diversity and inclusion efforts within their companies should consider getting in contact with those who are already active within the area.

“If you work in a bank or technology company, there are a lot of things already happening that you can get involved in,” he says. “Talk to your peers and see how they did it within their organisations.”

Tan says companies must also realise a lot of diversity and inclusion efforts will take time, with Roberts adding leaders must be as aware of external situations as they are of what’s going on internally within the organisation.

“You have to look at the internal environment and where you want to aspire to, versus what’s going on externally, so sometimes the best laid plans won’t work even if you had all the will in the world. There has to be recognition that some plans will take longer,” Roberts says.

The biggest advice Sears says he would give leaders looking at either building or reviewing their D&I strategies would be to not approach it as a problem, but rather as an opportunity.

“The second thing I would say is to engage differences and not just manage diversity and thirdly, they have to understand that your true goal is to create diversity of thought and perspective.

“If that is really your end goal, you will absolutely have to have diversity of race and gender, but that’s the end result, not the starting point.”

Read more:

Case study: Arup

HR Masterclass Series: High-level HR strategy training workshops
with topics ranging from Analytics, to HR Business Partnering, Coaching, Leadership, Agile Talent and more.
Review the 2020 masterclasses here »

Read More News


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.