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The importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace


December 14, 2020

Diversity and inclusion is a topic that has recently been bumped up the HR leaders’ priority list. According to a recent Gartner study, it’s now ranking at number six of the top ten key initiatives for HR leaders in 2021. As an area of HR’s strategic focus, diversity and inclusion isn’t new. It has been around since ‘Diversity Management’ was conceived in the 1980s, when the evidence at the time – and every year since – validated that employee diversity is a key component of strong business performance.

But the spotlight has once again moved to focus attention on this area, with a much brighter beam, arguably fuelled by recent anti-racism movements. Such social discourse around fairness and equality of opportunity has gained momentum over the last year and will surely continue on an upward trajectory.

What is diversity in the workplace?

Let’s take a look at how diversity translates to the workplace. Why is diversity important in the workplace?

Here are some of the key benefits of diversity and inclusion for every organisation:

  1. Different Perspectives: a different frame of reference (or different experience, different knowledge, different cultural values), means access to a broader vision for any question or challenge and subsequent ‘fit for purpose’ solution.
  2. Increased innovation potential: creativity happens when people look at the same topic from different perspectives – the pool of ideas is rich. When people from different view-points are required to deliver something together, they have no choice but to innovate, to deliver the shared end goal.
  3. Faster problem solving and decision-making: Aristotle described ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’, something that becomes apparent when using collective intelligence: diverse teams solve problems faster.
  4. Stronger employee engagement: through a strong employer brand comes higher employee engagement and better employee retention. Extensive research has shown that employees are far more likely to join a company, be highly productive and less likely to leave if they feel included and believe their unique perspective is acknowledged and appreciated.

Now let’s consider the challenges and perceived ‘downsides’. Interestingly, what one perceives as benefits, another may perceive as negatives. In other words:

  1. Different Perspectives: this can lead to a clash of opinions when – and if – a member of a team can’t/won’t understand their colleague’s perspective. Or, when members of the group can’t trust one another to share their best ideas (reticent to fully share due to a lack of mutual trust and confidence). The result is no solutions.
  2. Decreased innovation potential: when people from different view-points disagree and cannot work together, there’s a risk that high contribution potential individuals might lose their voice in this group. They may also risk losing their voice altogether as a result of damaged confidence from the experience of one unhealthy group dynamic experience. Not only is there no innovation or project as a result, but there’s also lasting damage to the high potential employee talent pool.
  3. Slower problem solving and decision making: sometimes, too many disparate views inhibit collective intelligence to work collaboratively – knowledge sharing is at risk and ultimately good decision making becomes impossible.
  4. Potential negative engagement: this will impact the employers brand, engagement and employee retention. Human beings are inherently tribal. We are all more comfortable working with those we know and understand (see affinity distance below). In many human social groups, maintaining the status quo is paramount to the sense of security/identity.

The role of affinity distance in diversity at work

Affinity distance is the number one obstacle to team progress and performance. Affinity comes from a shared culture, experience, values and history. Affinity distance is defined by how connected you are emotionally and mentally to your teammates. The less distance, the closer and stronger the dynamic and the higher the probability of high collective team performance. The greater the distance, the opposite is true.

How leaders can promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Ultimately, it’s the leaders of the organisation that are accountable for the integrity of its values and competency framework. Business leaders need to promote and reinforce the values of trust and respect at every opportunity. From a practical perspective, this means they must actively observe and inquire routinely. This must be done carefully to avoid inadvertently encouraging a blame culture by maintaining the balance between a culture of psychological safety versus a ‘big brother’ judge and juror.

It is important to be mindful that too much advocacy can be counter-productive, creating an environment where individuals feel inhibited to speak their minds for fear of career consequences.

From a leadership development perspective, role modelling is essential. The crucial step here is to ensure consistency of praise/reward for exemplary behaviour and fair punishment for deviation. Proactive day-to-day, perceivably ‘quiet’ interventions appear more effective than company-wide speeches professing zero tolerance for deviation.

A crucial component is ample budget for specific training or upskilling. The organisations winning in this space have routine, mandatory, leadership and development programs that cover topics such as cultural awareness, diversity awareness and understanding team dynamics. Such programmes not only educate people in the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of their day-to-day approach, but they also serve to reinforce a culture of open-mindedness. To this end, the influential director pushing for these programmes is proactively enabling the spirit of true fairness and equality of opportunity to take root and grow.

From an organisation design perspective, a company that has clear values and competency framework (one that articulates explicitly each value as it underpins well-described behaviours) holds the advantage. Such companies include emotional intelligence competencies that reach empathy, responsibility, collaboration, communication, active listening, honesty and self/group dynamic awareness.

These competencies, if continually monitored, properly measured and proactively honed, serve to overcome the potential obstacles born from affinity distance and thus allow for diversity and inclusion to become a real benefit for a business.

Contact Hoxby to learn more

Hoxby is a purposefully diverse, globally distributed and highly experienced community of freelancers. Our 1,000-strong experts work remotely across 43+ countries around the globe. By using the latest tech, we remove bias from all aspects of the way we work, from how we recruit our teams to how we collaborate. Hoxby is living proof of how a global diverse workforce can operate together inclusively.

Curious about how to endorse and promote diversity and inclusion in your organisation? Contact our HR experts or get in touch at

Caroline Ely is an experienced HR professional with a large corporate, international background. She is a member of the Hoxby community.

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