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Diversity and other buzz-words - a small business guide

*content warning - this article contains gross generalisations throughout!*

This weekend our fair capital city will host the Pride in London parade - and it got me thinking about 'diversity' and why it's so important for smaller enterprises in particular not to overlook this important aspect of doing business.

A common theme from pride parades all over the country is that often smaller businesses don't participate. They simply don't have the critical mass of a large corporate - they often don't have employee groups (such as LGBT, gender equality, ethnic minority, disability), and they can sometimes be, dare I say it, not very diverse.

But that doesn't mean as a small enterprise you shouldn't feel the need to embrace the concept. Indeed you only have to look as far as McKinsey's research to see that 'diverse' companies significantly outperform their non-diverse counterparts. So if diversity isn't on your agenda, then perhaps surviving the next generation isn't either...

The issue for me is that in translating diversity from the corporate level, small enterprise often misunderstand what we really mean by the concept.

What's the problem?

When corporates embrace a concept they do it with rigour! They have size and scale that is unfathomable to a small enterprise, and what comes with this is jargon and acronyms. When the concept becomes sort of "corporatised" it takes on it's own language and meaning. Small business will often take that language literally as they're not necessarily schooled in the latest way of speaking, or the right terminology.

Diversity, diversity strands, inclusion, quotas, targets, goals, aspirations... it can all get a bit confusing and sometimes counter intuitive.

Small businesses often look at the topic of diversity and say: "Well in my small town of X where am I going to attract or find LGBT/female/non-white/disabled employees? I need diversity to be successful but those people aren't accessible to me!"

So this encapsulates my largely generalised problem - when we say diversity we really mean is diversity of thought, experience and background and allowing this to be expressed in an open way (inclusion). You can have a room full of people with 'diverse' characteristics but if they are all independently wealthy, live in similar areas, went to similar red-brick universities and all vote for the same political party, are you likely to get different perspectives? Will people speak up or speak out if the way to get ahead is to be the same regardless?

Diversity covers so many facets and the success of a diverse business is really because it's fishing in a much bigger pond of perspective. People who think differently generate ideas differently, and people who generate ideas differently will innovate and contribute to your business differently - if you also give them space to do so.


Confusing right? But stay with me!

You don't actually have to have the characteristics of the diversity strands (although it undoubtedly helps, and I'll come on to this shortly), but in order to be more successful than your counterparts you do need to be able to appreciate other diversities, be welcoming and open minded to those diversities, and understand the view points you could be missing out on.

The use of diversity strands to try and effect change is because in general these people are already different to you. So it logically follows that their experiences in the world have been different and this has shaped their personality and skills. There are numerous anecdotal examples of certain diverse groups having particular personality or skill attributes e.g. It is often said that parts of the LGBT community can be adept at negotiation and difficult conversations with compassion - the theory being that the process of coming out can exercise and perfect these skills.

So if you don't have these diverse people in your organisation, you're going to need to think about how you can acquire those missing skills, knowledge and ways of thinking within the principle concept of what we mean by diversity.

And how different is that to the concept of acquiring sales skills? or improving your customer experience? This isn't something fluffy for HR - it's about building a culture in your business that will improve your success and profitability.

So then why is everything so distinct?

Why is gay pride still such a big thing, and growing? Why are we still fighting for gender equality when it was outlawed so long ago? Why is ethnic minority and disability even a thing?

Simply - because we haven't made enough progress. The gender pay gap remains enormous, every day ethnic minorities/disabled people/LGBT face discrimination at work, all of these categories and more are disadvantaged at work because they aren't being promoted or are being treated differently, or lesser. There are studies and evidence abound that point to this inefficiency and the huge potential gains when business gets this right.

And the worst part? Most of it is unconscious bias. You don't even realise you're doing it. When you selected that person to hire from the two best candidates you almost certainly exercised some form of unconscious bias - towards the one that was most like you. And in the process you excluded other (potentially more effective) talent.

Across the world thought leaders on this topic and large corporates have made sense of this by deconstructing diversity, identifying sub-groups that have different and overlapping needs and have been effecting change across those sub-groups. Large business usually progress change by setting quotas or targets against the strands the purpose of which is to (a) ensure that change does happen; and (b) provide a measure of success.

However in my view hitting those goals doesn't mean they have necessarily harnessed the power of that diversity, it is simply an indicator that they may have changed some behaviours which might stifle diversity (e.g. in recruitment, or promoting talent).

Diversity in action is not promoting someone because they are a woman, it's promoting the woman for the value in her skills and attributes that you might previously have overlooked because she was a woman.

Diversity & Inclusion are bedfellows

So this is where inclusion comes in. It's not enough to just be 'diverse' you also need to be 'inclusive'.

You might have hit the targets you set but unless you're being truly inclusive, and supporting people in an environment which might be hostile towards those who are different, those people won't contribute, and they won't stay either.

I said earlier that you don't need people with the diversity characteristics working in your organisation in order to start this change, and this is true. It is possible to achieve cultural change by acquiring some of those skills and ways of thinking through other learning channels initially, and creating the right environment for it to flourish. Managing behaviours is still a core part of the bedrock of business transformation.

What should happen in effect is that this shift in the organisation actually gives you a tool to attract those diverse people, therefore improving the pool of diverse talent in your organisation. Remember hiring a 'diverse' person won't make you successful - allowing that diversity to flourish in your organisation, is what will.

Thus the diagram above is a cycle. It's a representation of the process we go through iteratively to effect diversity and inclusion changes, and with each pass of the wheel the level of maturity increases.


So...if you're that small business that I referred to earlier - the one that thinks you don't have access to those diverse people - then perhaps open your eyes/mind and look around. Maybe you're already exhibiting your unconscious bias and aren't using diverse sources to find good people! To misquote a well known phrase - "diversity starts at home".


Audeo fortis are business advisers and management consultants with a difference. Email us on to talk about how you can assess your maturity towards diversity and inclusion using global benchmarks, and what you might do about it.