Is diversity becoming the new conformity?

By Lindsay Reid ACSI, a former compliance recruiter and now an independent compliance consultant specialist

LRNot long ago I heard that recruiters in the banking and finance sector increasingly favour female candidates for some senior roles.  As a former recruiter, I was taken aback, having always applied the basic principles of best-servicing clients by providing a selection of the best available, qualified and experienced candidates.

As far as diversity was concerned, there was only the view that some people are wired differently from others.  That they perform differently in certain tasks and under pressure in certain situations was widely held and tacitly acknowledged.

In other words, in the old days the mantra was to pick the best person for the job.

Unconscious bias and the benefits of diversity

There is, though, overwhelming evidence that too easily the question of unconscious (and sometimes, no doubt, conscious) bias comes into play too often.  So too often “best person for the job” has meant plumb jobs for the boys, particularly white, straight and middle-class ones.

All of this has rightly put an emphasis on the need for and benefits of diversity.  Not just to pursue equal opportunities for all, but so that employers can enjoy better results based on diversity of thought and experience.

HS2 has adopted a ‘blind audition’ approach to recruitment.  It has removed CVs and application forms and replaced them with anonymous, skills-based assessments.  These have increased the diversity of applicants at short-listing stage from 17 per cent to 47 per cent for women, and from 14 per cent to 50 per cent for BAME groups, whilst maintaining the right level of technical competence. [Source People Management, September 2019.]

Advantages of diversity

Diversity has fast become the new normal.  It is fairer and it can be seen to deliver results.

For individuals, good diversity policies mean the best candidates from disadvantaged or diverse backgrounds can get the job.  This opens opportunities and careers which may previously have been denied.

For firms, harnessing a wide range of different experience can deliver better and more creative results.  It can create an enviable and inclusive working environment that harnesses a mix of experiences, talents, skills and backgrounds.

Cultural diversity can differentiate firms from competition, help reach a wider base of clients and also attract the best applicants.  It can mean new opportunities for growth, prosperity and market leadership.

Diversity challenges

However, diversity is not all plain sailing, it comes in different flavours and can lead to unexpected results.  For instance, there can be a big difference between diversity of thought and diversity of background.

Firms reporting on their diversity performance, often quote stats on gender, race and LGBTQ recruitment.  They may not report that they still recruit only from the same old talent pool, such as top universities, un-interrupted.  At first glance they are drawing on people from all walks of life.  On closer inspection, selection may be just as elite as it ever was.

Other firms go further, aiming to build a workforce bringing together people from a range of diverse backgrounds and cultures.  This can come with challenges.  After all, the point of diversity is to bring together people who do things differently.  That can be what you get.

In these environments colleagues do not always conform to common practices. Hence, it can become necessary to find new ways of working together to find out how to get the most out of everyone.

That can mean a significant investment in training and consensus building.  Finding consensus can test patience, will-power and self-control.  Meetings can become so draining and fraught with the suppressed frustration of working in unfamiliar ways that other work can suffer.  Deadlines and meetings may have to be re-arranged as a result.

It can be harder to get agreement as everyone has their own experiences and opinions.  Though not all discussions require everyone’s participation, disagreements can become inevitable when all opinions are canvassed.

In other words, time spent working out how best to accommodate and synthesise everyone’s creative input is often not an efficient use of time or resource.

Consequently, health and well-being can be affected.  “Ego-depletion”, when exercising self-control draws too heavily on available mental resources, can become a common fatigue.

In other words, inclusive diversity policies can eat into time, resource and budgets.

So is there a need to conform to diversity?

Diversity is not, and should never be treated as, a “tick box” exercise in conformity.  But it can require time, effort and understanding.  It must be more about examining what makes individuals tick, how they think and how to maximise their potential based on their individual experiences.

When changing established recruitment policies and processes, it’s best to think through and plan for all the implications.  It can mean investing to make sure the right conditions are in place that will work for, and get the best out of, everyone.

When those basics are in place, and firms can draw on true diversity of experience, the benefits can be all the more rewarding.

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