The importance of diversity is something that all HR professionals are aware of across the globe, and yet it’s still a struggle for many organisations. It seems there’s an uphill challenge when trying to engage the board in the diversity agenda, and there’s always been a missing link between a diverse workforce and the impact on bottom line figures which business leaders are currently striving for. It’s up to HR teams to help to overcome the barriers and, as such Telefónica UK hosted an Ochre House Network think tank on workplace diversity.

In the lead up to the think tank, we interviewed HR leaders at over twenty major international companies, and the responses revealed diversity to be a crucially important objective for a number of reasons. Beyond the need to access wider talent pools and gain global competitiveness, other benefits included cost efficiency, improved employer brand perception, international mobility and risk mitigation. However, perhaps the most interesting outcome was consumer empathy, and the idea that for businesses to remain profitable and competitive, the workforce needs to reflect the diverse customer base.

During the think tank, the importance of this was further highlighted by Feilim Mackle, Sales and Service Director at Telefónica UK and host of the event. By means of example, Feilim played a series of ‘vox pop’ interviews designed to gain feedback on customer experiences in store. The video highlighted a series of demographics Telefónica could be missing due to the average age and gender of staff – a huge gap in its target audience which has the potential to impact bottom line figures.

Given the value of a diverse workforce which has been identified, there are a number of things to remember when building a framework for diversity. Graeme Codrington, Co-founder and international partner of TomorrowToday outlined some key tips:

  1. Recognise and understand the paradox: Move away from referring to the right or wrong way of doing things. There is no definitive method and so striving for this is futile.
  2. Understand your ‘lenses’: We all view the world in a different way and will have varying views on what diversity is as a result. For example, is it culture, gender, age or personality? Be clear which of these lenses you are addressing.
  3. Develop emotional intelligence (EI): In order to embed diversity into the business you first need to establish EI in the existing workforce, particularly at leadership levels.
  4. See the invisible: Finally make sure you look beyond what you can see on the surface. Diversity isn’t about the physical, but the emotional, cultural, class and education as well, so build these into your plans.

Graeme also highlighted that it’s fundamental to consider the end goal. Too often harmony is viewed as the key outcome, but diversity is likely to have the opposite effect. It’s not going to be comfortable, it will be a big change, but the benefits are enormous and these alone should be the desired outcome.

Whilst discussing best (and worst) practice examples, delegates agreed that there were three key areas to address in order to drive diversity and inclusion in the business. In the first instance, there is an increasing need to move towards building communities of talent beyond your current reach in order to tap into a diverse range of groups.

Related to this, HR professionals also need to understand what the current workforce really looks like before moving to attract more diverse talent. If, as mentioned earlier, one of the key aims of diversity is customer empathy, without first outlining internal structures it is impossible to truly identify the talent gaps.

Finally, the largest challenge is perhaps making sure that line managers and other decision makers really ‘get’ diversity, and to do this we need to educate them on what it means for the business. However, this can be difficult when we’re using the same information, stats and approach time and again.

When the group attempted to address this, the conclusion was that leaders need to emotionally experience the effect of exclusivity. A fantastic example was shared at the think tank from a senior female HR professional who took two male colleagues along to a conference aimed at helping women get ahead in their career. Confronted with a room full of the opposite gender, these colleagues expressed their nervousness around being singled out and isolated. Only following this experience could these business decision makers really get to grips with how a lack of diversity and inclusion can affect individuals, the workforce and ultimately, commercial performance.

We know that there’s a wide recognition that diversity is an important business objective, but in order for it to be built into an organisation’s framework, there will need to be a cultural change within the company. At the forefront of this is the move from diversity as a single entity, to being combined with the need for inclusion and engagement of the workforce. And while in theory the board may like the idea of a diverse workforce, they need to really ‘live it’ before they are enthused enough to embed it into the business. But with the right approach, HR professionals and business leaders can really challenge current thinking and drive diversity.