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Diversity is not a single issue

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DiversityDiversity in the workplace is an area where employers can bring about big cultural shifts and lead the way in creating a more equal society, says Beth Vaughan.


In an increasingly regulated world of employment and with an increasingly diverse workforce in the UK, it is crucial individuals are not simply segmented into single equality strands. An employee is not just a person. He or she is a person with a gender, an age, a race, a sexual orientation, a faith or belief or set of personal values, and possibly a disability. Employers who embrace this idea, and develop policies that develop best practice around each strand, as well as when strands converge, will be the ones that best confront the demands of the current recession and emerge fit and ready for the opportunities the upturn will bring.

The Queen’s Speech in December 2008 announced the much trialed and consulted upon Equality Bill. This will be the realisation of the government’s aim to simplify the myriad of equality legislation which has developed over more than 30 years. However, in light of the recent rumours that equality measures will be cut from the Bill to ease business pressure, it is even more important that individuals take on the challenge of changing company culture and allowing workplaces that respect all, to flourish.

“The complexities around these issues for employers cannot be under-estimated.”

The formation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is another step forward in looking at issues around multiple discrimination; when a person being discriminated against not because she is a women or because she is older or because she is of a particular faith, but because she is an older woman of faith.

The complexities around these issues for employers cannot be under-estimated. The media feature more and more cases of conflict when two sets of interests collide; the recent cases brought by Lilian Ladele and Gary MacFarlane highlighted the sensitive issues when religious belief is perceived to clash with sexual orientation.

Other obvious areas involve dress codes and religious practices, fitness testing and gender. Best practice means avoiding the trap of stereotyping and making assumptions that people’s behaviour is likely to be dictated by their particular ‘difference’ without checking on the employees’ needs and best practice. Avoiding such assumptions will foster greater understanding in the workplace, enhance staff retention and consequently assist productivity.

Diversity strands should not only be reviewed in light of clashes, but also in light of progress. The reality is that the diversity strands are not always equally addressed in the workplace; ageism is still reported as the most commonly experienced prejudice in the workplace, and is particularly pernicious. Why is it, too often, seen as less contentious, less problematic? As seen recently on the Dispatches programme ‘Ageism in the Workplace’, euphemisms like ‘too experienced’, ‘over-qualified’, or ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ go largely unchallenged. So ingrained are some attitudes about age and ability it is hard to remove them from general thinking. This is clearly to the detriment of the employee, and the employer, and more widely to the economy and society.

“It will take a significant culture shift before we can truly say that age discrimination is something we look back on as shocking.”

It will take a significant culture shift before we can truly say that age discrimination is something we look back on as shocking, in the same way we do when faced with the sexist and racist attitudes of the past. Older workers may be unfairly refused training. Younger workers may receive lower pay rates and employment benefits, or be denied promotion despite having all the relevant experience and abilities. Since the Age Regulations came into effect in 2006, there has been a steady flow of cases reaching the courts. This is likely to increase as individuals become more aware of their rights and particularly as redundancies loom during an economic downturn.

The default retirement age (DRA) of 65 remains a barrier to equal opportunities in the workplace. For true equality shouldn’t everyone be able to choose when to retire, irrespective of age? Physical capabilities do change as we grow older, and some jobs may become harder, but with the right management, an older worker who doesn’t want to retire can still be a valuable asset in an adapted role as knowledge and experience are retained within the organisation. Longer working lives are becoming a financial necessity for many of us and there is little evidence that suggests age directly affects job performance. Staff at all ages need good management and relevant training opportunities.

Members of the Employers Forum on Age and the Employers Forum on Belief, which include some of the UK’s top companies, are working hard to change company culture and employee attitude. Legislation plays a key role in helping organisations develop working policies that encourage diversity and prevent many unacceptable instances of prejudice. We all have work to do to improve and change the way we operate for workers. Enlightened employers are already developing policies which manage conflicts between the diversity strands; addressing the issues by tackling stereotyping. This signifies a major shift in the way many organisations run their businesses, shifts that bring positives to the employer as well as the employee.

The workplace is a space in which many of us meet others with different beliefs, attitudes and preferences to our own. Employers can bring about big change through the challenges this poses and help develop an integrated society and a productive labour market for the future.


Beth Vaughan is head of communications at the Employers Forum on Age

One Response

  1. We need a new phrase
    Given that the 21st Century workforce is more varied in characteristics than ever before we need a new phrase to replace the notion of diversity. The dictionary defines diversity as “a different kind” and the whole notion centres around expanding the workforce beyond white middle aged men. While this may have been historically correct, it’s no longer relevant. The term diversity merely perpetuates the myth there is some standard or norm for an employee, from which others deviate i.e. are diverse.
    We need a new phrase that fully embraces the concept of a multi-skilled, multi-cultural, multi-gender and multi-ethnic workforce.

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