HomeEmployee ExperienceCultureCelebrate differences, not rules: Handling DE&I without polarization

Celebrate differences, not rules: Handling DE&I without polarization

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“I thought diversity was all about celebrating difference. But I am increasingly worried that it’s becoming a tool of conformity”, says Simon Fanshawe OBE, author of the Power of Difference, the CMI’s just announced Management Book of the Year.

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I asked a group of fifteen FTSE CEO’s the other day three questions: could they really articulate why diversity would enhance the ability of their companies to achieve their business and ESG goals; whether they felt anxious about talking about diversity, both for themselves and their company’s brand; and finally, whether they had a grown-up relationship with their staff networks.

They answered respectively: not really, yes and no!

We have got ourselves into a state with diversity and inclusion where we are being far too generalized (and even clichéd) about why we’re pursuing it, so it is getting less traction with our staff; the levels of anxiety around “getting things wrong” is rising to such levels we are unable to learn from mistakes – which is the very best place from which to learn; and staff networks are far more focused on themselves than they are on their contribution to the company and thus in danger of becoming “grumble hubs”.

Unless we get ourselves out of this position with some honest conversations, D&I is going to become a polarising force within companies – in the way that Brexit and issues around gender have become so divisive in the twittersphere and on wider social media – rather than a way of working that enables staff to enjoy and combine their difference in pursuit of the common goals of the company.

Why we started talking about diversity

It’s useful to remember why we started talking about diversity in the first place.

Primarily it was because the data increasingly told us that there were disparities between groups of people in their access to opportunities in, up and across organisations. So, we started tackling these diversity deficits.

Which worked fine until we framed diversity too narrowly in terms just of the lack of opportunity for certain groups. This led to two problems.

Firstly we started to see people too often simply as members of those groups, without recognizing their individual talent, ambition and ability – merely members of “marginalized groups”, as one staff member of the CBI rather patronizingly, I thought, put it to me recently. This was on a day when I had received an email from a very successful American gay ex-banker who has made a subsequent career jetting around the world (I suspect not in economy class) organizing LGBT etc conferences for which CEOs pay huge amounts of money to attend to show their “allyship”. Marginalized? Not that section of the LGBT population.

Secondly, if we just talk about the deficits we end up, as so many well-meaning CEOs do when they call me, just saying “We must get more women”. To which I rather cheekily reply, “Well, let’s pop out on the High Street and get six assorted”! They don’t mean that of course, but women don’t come as a job lot. They need to be able to explain what a better balance between men and women in their company will do, for instance, for its approach to risk, or customer service or whatever.


There is also a contradictory upshot of speaking of people in this way. We both disempower them as individuals with personal ambitions and over-empower them as groups. Many CEOs and HRD/CHROs to whom I speak have ended up with their staff groups being so demanding to the point that it’s difficult to say no, because they have been told that they are a “marginalized group” and that as CEO/HRD, s/he has “privilege”.

Furthermore, the views of these networks in question is gate kept and a single voice is represented as speaking for the whole group. But all staff groups speak with many voices. In the Civil Service, for instance, a significant section of lesbians and gays were actually excluded from the LGBTQ+ network because they took a different view on questions of gender. So, they had to set up their own (now officially recognized) staff network called the Sex Equality and Equity Network.

This gatekeeping happens not just within groups but between individuals. It is enough now to make an accusation – “you’re xyz-ist” – for that to define the crime, find you guilty and mete out the punishment. But that assumes malice. And you can’t run a department or a team on accusations.

Behavior and language

Behavior and language is more usefully thought of in three broad categories: careless, thoughtless and malicious.

The effect of clumsy or thoughtless behavior between humans, where our intentions do not match the effect of our conduct or our words, can be awful. The drip, drip, drip of everyday sexism to women, thoughtless remarks about race or religion are like a daily pile driver. But however annoying, hurtful or depressing for those on the receiving end, ultimately we need to find a way for each of us and for our organizations to learn so that it stops, rather than just reacting with punishment so mostly it just goes underground.

Careless and thoughtless language and behavior where intent does not match effect is where we have to try and explore and learn. Malicious behavior and language on the other hand needs evidence and a commitment on behalf of managers and the company to act and act decisively and fairly.

When what happens is not malicious, my tip is to take it in two parts. Managers should in always make it clear that their staff can always talk to them when something happens. When someone does, then their first task is to listen. Listen to hear. Not listen to respond. Don’t try and solve it. Just hear it. Then also hear the person who messed up. And only then try to find a way through.

Recently I worked with a manager who ought to be feted on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. There was a vacancy. Four applications. One internal. An external got the job and the internal candidate, a British Asian women, asserted that the process had been racist. The manager listened to her. He also listened to the person who ran the process. He said to both of them, “In this department, we don’t want to have a process of recruitment that disadvantages anyone and deprives us of the talent we need to do the best job. So, will you both help me go through our recruitment process to improve it so that it excludes no one”


‘We cannot afford to walk on eggshells’

We cannot afford to walk on eggshells. Managers must be supported to listen. Each of must accept that as human beings we will be clumsy with each other. There is no world where we don’t do things that are thoughtless or upsetting. So, we need to learn through each other’s differences. If we allow opinions to be gatekept and shut down, we will create cultures in our organizations where if we can’t talk about the difficult stuff we won’t be able to talk about anything. Innovation will suffer.

We need to create spaces that are safe for disagreement not from it – what is often called ‘psychological safety’. But the safety comes from being able to have the disagreements and upsets well and learn from them, not from not having them at all. Diversity to benefit us all must be about difference, not rules and prohibitions.


Simon Fanshawe OBE is the author of the Power of Difference (CMI Management Book of the Year) and a partner in Diversity by Design

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