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Conduct risks undermine diversity initiatives

When companies acknowledge the need to increase the diversity of their workforce, they are failing to consider the conduct risks that may accrue, writes ethics expert and director of the Ethics Conversation, Jane Arnott MNZM…

White spaces equal safe spaces.

Whether you agree or disagree with that statement, recent research tells us this is not the case for everyone.

This week, Prof Jarrod Haar from the School of Management, Massey University, released the findings of a research report titled ‘Perceived discrimination of Māori and Pacific employees in Aotearoa / New Zealand’. It revealed that only 6.4% of Māori employees and 4.1% of Pacific employees report no discrimination whatsoever.

Extraordinarily such data and insights have surfaced at a time when expectations of diversity and inclusivity in the workforce are at an all-time high.

When companies acknowledge the need to increase the diversity of their workforce, including their senior leadership team, it is evident that they are failing to consider the broader implications. While statistics around gender or ethnicity may present well in an annual report, it’s what is happening behind the scenes that warrants attention from an ethics and integrity perspective.

In a new and diverse environment, culture can’t remain static. Personal values, the ones that people bring into the workplace – including the boardroom and the council chamber – may need to be refreshed and updated. Preparation is key.

Take bias as just one set of behaviours that become full frontal when situations are encountered that require considered thinking and sensitivity. True bias is reflected in behaviour that is disproportionately prejudicial and usually unwise. It is usually directed at a person or maybe about a concept or thing. Bias warrants challenge – the act of calling it out or, even better, calling in.

On that basis, diversity and inclusivity measures create a meaningful new task for those responsible for embedding ethical standards of behaviour – those standards that ward against conduct risk. 

And, as part of that, how speak-up processes are developed and delivered must be reconsidered.

When diversity becomes the gameplan, so too must speak up become part of the winning play.

It is inconceivable that across all cultures and genders there is a ‘one size fits all’ means to speak up. Questioning whether existing speak-up policies remain fit for purpose is essential as is asking employees from different ethnicities how they view them. 

With Report it Now, several different channels for speaking up are provided and training across the company on when and how to speak up is recommended.

As Professor Haar acknowledges in his abstract, this specific research is important because it provides much-needed empirical evidence around ethnic discrimination in Aotearoa/New Zealand workplaces.

The report also suggests that no one who was interviewed thought it worth their time to speak up. And it highlights that workplace experiences that involve discrimination critically affect the mental health of Māori and Pacific employees.

Discriminatory behaviour and conduct risks include:

  1. Joking, the casual racism implicit in ‘locker room banter’ situations or evidenced by entitlement and a sense of familiarity that relies on everyone else joining in for the ride

But when that joke involves demeaning, belittling or undermining someone on the basis of their gender or ethnicity it rapidly becomes offensive. It is worsened when it stems from a member of a dominant group because it can be all too intimidating to retaliate against.

  1. Failing to encounter and consider people on neutral terms. This failure works to deny opportunities for promotion or a bonus – frequently with little justification other than ‘they won’t fit in’ (although on one occasion I was told an appointment couldn’t occur as there was only a male toilet on the top floor – where the boardroom was).

Remaining objective and having an open mind free from inappropriate and inaccurate stereotypes is of paramount importance.

  1. Shunning and exclusion such as rejecting or ignoring requests for training or higher roles and failing to invite someone to social and networking occasions. In UK for example an employment judge, in 2022, awarded a cashier $144k in compensation, maintaining that exclusions represented a ‘detriment to work’ and meant a lost opportunity to bond with colleagues.

As diversity increases, consider:

Inviting those who are at the forefront of diversity to advise on how they would best like to see a speak-up process work.

Reviewing how a policy statement can get operationalised in a way that better accommodates diversity. Reflect on the emotional journey and the potential for discomfort.

Seeking out advisory to gain cultural competency and acquire greater cultural confidence to understand how traditional family influences may reinforce staying silent as a sign of respect and loyalty.

Identify how an external agency such as Report it Now can provide cover and enable trust and confidence especially when internal processes may lack the skills.

Invest in speak-up workshops that both reinforce the types of things that anyone can speak up about and how best to support someone in making the right decision to do so.

Like peeling paintwork, shabby, discriminatory conduct reflects ugly truths about our workplaces. The data and insights are there to act on – but any paintbrush without the sandpaper or primer will be a waste of time and diversity will be damned.

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