By Funke Abimbola MBE, general counsel and head of financial compliance for Roche UK

Immigration was one of the thorniest issues of the EU referendum campaign. Highly political and emotionally charged, it is also dominating conversation as we negotiate our exit. And rightly so. Brexit, if mishandled, has the potential to severely damage both diversity and inclusion within the workforce. This would have a detrimental impact on UK PLC’s abilities to compete on the global stage.

Why diversity matters

Diversity in the workforce is important for many reasons but perhaps the most significant is to drive diversity of thought. Diversity of thought is fundamental to quality decision making and creative problem solving, both key to running a successful organisation.

You cannot expect a group of people who are remarkably similar to have as diverse a way of thinking as those who have different backgrounds including different educations, genders, experiences and cultural heritage. A homogeneous group is more likely to have the same blind spots and make the same omissions. They become an echo chamber.

Diverse teams, on the other hand, are more likely to challenge each other and ensure a creative, innovative environment where quality decisions are made.

We know this impacts the bottom line. Research by McKinsey shows that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially. Companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.

The reverse also holds true. Companies in the bottom quartile are less likely to achieve above-average returns.

Where are we?

While we are yet to exit the EU we have already seen a drop in EU nationals applying for roles in the UK. Nurses – the backbone of our NHS – are particularly affected. In November, the Guardian reported official figures showing an 89% drop in the number of nurses from the EU registering to work in the UK.

In addition, the Brexit vote revealed an undercurrent of racial and ethnic tensions that many assumed the UK did not suffer. The media reported attacks on EU nationals increasing immediately after the vote. Professional and highly educated colleagues of mine from Eastern Europe mentioned greater hostility towards them when they were out and about.

What can be done?

Once outside the EU, we’ll still need to continue to compete globally. This means we’ll still need to attract and retain the best talent. This can only be done by being a diverse and inclusive country, where that diversity is reflected in our workforce.

As the McKinsey report states: “more diverse companies, we believe, are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns”. The same should be true for a country as a whole.

How we can continue to compete?

This is also important when thinking about attracting and retaining the next generation. My 14-year-old son’s generation no longer thinks about diversity and inclusion in the way that we do. They are more open, tolerant and actively want a socially and culturally diverse environment in which to learn and grow.

This will remain the case as they enter the workforce. If the UK and its companies do not retain their diversity, these young minds are likely to seek a life elsewhere – potentially damaging the UK and our economy for many generations beyond.

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