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The role of HR in driving diversity and inclusion

Written by Deborah O’Connor on Saturday January 9, 2021


This article is published as part of ICA's Diversity and Inclusion Initiative 'Celebration of People'.

For over 30 years, researchers have argued that diverse and inclusive workforces are good for business. Organisations that embrace diversity and inclusion (D&I) are more innovative and agile, outperform their competitors and attract a wider variety of stakeholders, ultimately benefitting the bottom line.

However, D&I initiatives, which also contribute to sustaining competitive advantage and positive corporate image, some organisations struggle to implement (or even acknowledge). The following article considers the role of the HR function in driving D&I, and the importance of compliance management in overseeing changes in organisational behaviour and practices.

D&I and human resource management

D&I is more than just employing different types of people. D&I is a moral and corporate responsibility, creating a sense of belonging and organisational justice, and provides an employee with the assurance of fair treatment and opportunity in every aspect of employment. Today’s workplaces are complex, and inclusivity is vital for team cohesion and imagination, and for empowering employees to readily contribute to business initiatives and outcomes.

When an employee can comfortably portray their authentic-self it benefits well-being, builds confidence and strengthens commitment to the organisation. Conversely, a failure to adopt effective D&I initiatives can impact an employee’s idea of psychological safety in the workplace. Under-represented groups are emboldened when their voices are heard, and their contributions are supported and formulated. It improves organisational efficiency as well as employee morale.

D&I should also be considered in the context of geographical location. For example, Asian organisations may be more focused on issues relating to national culture and employee value proposition when developing D&I programmes, in comparison to Western organisations.


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Understanding the organisation’s social climate is important when designing interventions, as one size does not fit all. Engaging employees on all organisational levels and adopting a psychological approach may also be useful for identifying knowledge gaps, and gaining a better understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and views on D&I, belonging and equity.

HR as partners of diversity and inclusion  

The HR function has a unique aerial view of the D&I impact on the organisation and should ensure effective strategies permeate into every component of people management. It should be evident in hiring practices: developing neuro-inclusive recruiters for example, who understand the importance and advantages of hiring neuro-divergent individuals to bolster the talent pool beyond neuro-typical candidates. 

Neurodiversity is considered a form of competitive advantage in the war on talent, and increasingly companies are enhancing recruitment practices to ensure equal opportunity to job applicants. Employee onboarding, as well as reward and recognition programmes, are other ways of gaining insight into an employee’s unique needs, and can benefit their performance and productivity.

From a risk management perspective, building D&I knowledge is vital for assisting in preventing reputational and financial damage caused by equality legislation breaches.  Sometimes unconscious bias (UB) training is viewed with trepidation and there is the risk of unwanted effects if interventions are poorly managed. However, the aim of UB awareness is to educate employees on the consequences of prejudicial and discriminatory behaviour, and the impact on individuals and the organisation. 

When employees recognise the efforts being made to include diverse voices in developing business strategies, there is a greater likelihood of gaining support and agreement during implementation. Silo mentality barriers are diminished and knowledge management is strengthened when individuals of different backgrounds and cognitive thinking are represented in strategic, advisory and oversight roles; it improves problem-solving and helps to reduce the potential for business failure due to lack of innovation.

Succession planning and leadership development programmes are also key areas in which HR leaders must consider the diverse attributes of the workforce, and how initiatives can support development and progression.

Watch Deborah's interview as part of ICA's Diversity and Inclusion mini series. 

D&I as a channel for compliance success

Effective D&I strategies contribute to sound corporate governance. They demonstrate to employees a commitment to fair treatment and equity, no matter which group(s) they represent. Again, it strengthens risk management strategies by encouraging and promoting different types of employees into key decision-making positions, shaping a culture of transparency.

The compliance function should play an active part (in collaboration with the HR function) in understanding how the organisational climate may be positively or negatively affecting the progress in D&I, and the impact on employee conduct.

Challenging biases which hamper an organisation’s ability to effectively fulfil its legal and internal obligations is another important aspect of compliance in D&I. The compliance function must be fearless in questioning the homogeneous composition of the boardroom, the c-suite and other business divisions, by promoting the benefits of having different types of voices as champions in promoting good corporate governance. If boards and c-suite leaders genuinely value business sustainability, they cannot ignore the uniqueness of their employees: visible and non-visible characteristics, skills, experience and cognition.

Final thoughts

It is the task of HR leaders is to improve objective decision-making processes, by devising inventive ways of addressing workplace bias, and promoting inclusive environments which provide opportunities for all employees. Workplace D&I is complex and simply creating a diverse workforce is not the destination. It requires continuous effort, commitment and monitoring.

Effort means celebrating rather than marginalising employees because of their individuality. Commitment means implementing business strategies which actively identify and support the unique needs of employees throughout each stage of their employment journey. And monitoring means challenging business practices which undermine organisational values and fail to treat employees equitably. 

About the Author

Deborah O’Connor holds an International Diploma in AML and Specialist Certificate in Corporate Governance with the ICA, a MSc. in Human Resource Management, and PG Certificate in Organizational & Business Psychology. Her career spans over 20 years mainly in retail banking in various leadership and management roles including branch operations, AML training, and business support.

 


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