What diversity brings to a workplace

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Although 84% of Australians believe that multiculturalism has been good for our country, and one in five of our population lives with disability, today’s workplaces still have a lot of room for improving diversity.

So, what is meant by the term ‘diversity’?

Cultural diversity in the workplace means that organisations are open to hiring people from all sorts of different backgrounds, regardless of race, religion, disability, gender, sexuality and culture. The word ‘diversity’ can also include age, work experience, socio-economic background and marital status.

Many people may not immediately think of disability as an aspect of social and workplace diversity – but employing someone with a disability, for example, is one way of making a genuine difference.

The concept of workplace diversity includes the principle of equal employment opportunity (EEO). EEO policies address disadvantage experienced by some groups of people in the workplace, including people with disability, women, Indigenous Australians, and women.

Workplace diversity involves recognising the value of individual differences. When companies recruit and retain a diverse pool of people, it brings a host of benefits to the business, as well as its employees.

Australian workplaces reflect our diversity – mostly

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, “We are home to the world’s oldest continuous cultures, as well as Australians who identify with more than 270 ancestries. Since 1945, almost seven million people have migrated to Australia.”

These migrants have made an enormous contribution to our national economy, providing a financial benefit of more than $10 billion in their first decade of settlement alone.

Since 1975, the Racial Discrimination Act has made discrimination and public acts of racial hatred illegal. Despite this, many people still experience prejudice and unfair treatment because of how they look or where they come from.

One in four of Australia’s 22 million people were born overseas, and 46% have at least one parent who was born overseas. About 20% of Australians speak a language other than English at home.

This has flowed into the demographics of our workplaces, with about 13% of workers born in non-English speaking countries and 23% born overseas. More than half of working Australians have contact with people from a different cultural background through their working life.

People with disability, however, are not widely represented in working life, despite more than four million people in Australia living with disability.

The stark reality is that of 2.2 million adults with disability, only 52.8% are working compared with 82.5% for people without disability. About 54% of these people with disability want to work but have never had a paid job. As a subset, people on the Autism spectrum – about one in 100 Australians – have an unemployment rate of 31.6%, which is three times higher than others with disability and almost six times higher than people without disability. People with disability face discrimination and are clearly under-represented in the workforce.

As for the demographic of ageing Australians, the Australian Bureau of Statistics projects that the number of working people aged 50 years and over will increase in the next five years by more than a fifth. While Australians are staying in the workforce for longer, low population growth means the number of younger workers entering the labour market is falling. This will result in competition for skilled staff in all industries and sectors.

A study by Deloitte found that 48% of baby boomers expect to keep working past age 65, and 13% believe they will work into their 70s. Deloitte says that one approach for addressing this opportunity of an ageing workforce is to apply principles of workforce flexibility and career customisation, targeting workers as they near retirement age.

Women make up 47% of all employed people in Australia – 25.6% of all employees are women working full-time, and 21.4% work part-time. Most women still work part-time, with 68.1% of all part-time employees being female. More women have a tertiary education than men, and yet women still occupy fewer leadership positions. About 14% of chair positions and 25.8% of directorships are held by women, while about 17% CEOs are female. There are more women in Australian senior management roles, though at 30.5% it’s still not equal representation.

More than two-thirds (67%) of Australia’s business owner managers are Australian born. About 8% are from North-West Europe and 4.5% are from North East Asia. Less than 1% identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

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Diversity makes good business sense

Supporting diversity attracts great people and creates an ideal environment for your entire workforce. It’s been said that oganisations with inclusive cultures are three times more likely to be high performing, eight times more likely to have better overall business outcomes, and twice as likely to exceed financial targets.

Many studies have shown that increased cultural diversity in the workplace can lead to greater profits for the organisation.

A recent American survey found that 48% of companies with diversity at the senior management level improved their market share from the previous year, compared with only 33% companies with less diverse management. Another study showed that employers that place a high emphasis on diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above the industry median.

Employing people with disability also makes good social and business sense, although we should remember that disability is often invisible.

For some people, disability may be episodic, while for others, it may be stable. Disabilities range from severe to extremely minor, and people with disability of many different forms are already effectively contributing to the Australian workforce.

Employing an individual with disability is very rewarding for both the employer and the employee. Although there may be additional equipment or modifications required to accommodate their needs, there is also a lot of support (practical and financial) available to help. It’s important to be prepared for your new employee by contacting the relevant agencies up front, to ensure you don’t miss out on available benefits.

Diversity builds productivity, creativity and solutions

A diverse workforce is a more productive workforce. Your business can benefit from different perspectives, improved community relations and more innovative ideas.

Diversity experts say that having staff from a mix of backgrounds, genders or races can contribute better solutions or concepts and strong opportunities for cross-fertilisation, giving businesses a competitive edge. Broader perspectives and deeper ideas mean better solutions and different skillsets. A flow-on benefit is adaptability in services or product offerings.

Diverse perspectives can also help you develop better products to meet your customers’ needs. For instance, global toy manufacturer, Mattel Inc., has said that “a culture rich in diversity is key to business success. It allows us to better understand the business opportunities in various markets around the world, and develop products that resonate with consumers in diverse cultures.”

Diversity could open new doors

Language skills and community or cultural knowledge are two areas where diversity helps organisations flourish. Companies that plan to expand into global markets benefit from workplace language diversity. For example, a company with employees fluent in Chinese and who understand Chinese culture will have better results communicating with representatives from China or building market presence. There’s evidence that diverse companies are 70% more likely to capture a new market.

Of course, having workers with skills, languages or backgrounds in other cultures means businesses can better service local customers as well. According to one study, customer experience will soon overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. Personalisation in customer service is becoming even more crucial.

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Diversity is good for morale and staff retention

When diversity is well managed and employees are trained in cultural sensitivity and awareness, it builds cohesion, teamwork and an environment where people feel validated and important, regardless of differences. This affirmation of value improves individual worker morale, the desire to work more effectively or efficiently, and the collective positivity in the workplace.

And what better way for staff to learn about people in other parts of the world than to work alongside them or socialise in the staff kitchen or office party?

If you need further evidence that diversity is good for business, consider that 57% of people think their company should be doing more to increase diversity among its workforce, and 83% of millennials are actively engaged when they believe their employer fosters an inclusive culture.

By considering employing people with disability, you have access to a talent pool of highly committed, highly motivated and loyal job seekers. The flow-on effect is better workplace morale and for people with disability, job satisfaction, a sense of self-worth and social interaction. The added benefits are increasing the awareness of this sector of the community for other employees who may have limited life experience with the many forms of disability.

Diversity helps attract the right people and builds CSR

Top candidates are drawn to companies with diverse workforces because that’s evidence these enterprises don’t discriminate against job seekers. Potential employees want to know that employers treat their staff fairly, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender. Companies that value diversity have the added benefit of higher staff retention rates, because of the flow-on effects of high employee morale.

A survey by HR company, Glassdoor found 67% of people consider diversity an important factor when deciding where to work.

Attracting the best available talent is not just about hiring new graduates or rising stars. Older workers can bring experience and a strong work ethic to an organisation, while also undergoing discrimination because of their age. Younger workers benefit from the expertise built by those who’ve been in the workforce for longer as well.

Workers from other countries, such as India, China and Japan, often have an exceptional education and high loyalty, combined with a strong desire to work. Loyalty and dedication to the job are also qualities seen in workers with disability, another vastly under-represented group in the Australian workforce.

Whatever the case, companies that provide equal opportunities to all workers can select, interview, screen and hire the right people for the right jobs.

Reputation can speak volumes for a business too. Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR is on everyone’s radar lately, especially larger organisations listed on the ASX or those that participate in audits for best practice human resources.

Such companies are often recognised for their policies of tolerance, openness and inclusion, which can go hand in hand with being flexible and adaptable to change – all highly sought-after qualities in the marketplace.

This article about our BusyBeans program describes the huge impact this initiative has had on the lives of many people with intellectual disability. Getting involved in BusyBeans or a socially inclusive program like it is beneficial for people with disability and their families, as well as potentially thousands of everyday workplaces and their staff.

In part 2 of this article about workplace diversity, we’ll talk about how you can build diversity in your workplace.

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