How to improve inclusion in the workplace

How can you make diversity and inclusion a priority on the business agenda?

How to improve inclusion in the workplace

Despite its status as a diverse and multi-cultural region, organisations in Asia are notorious for ignoring inclusion and diversity. Back in 2019, an annual study found Singapore the second-worst performing country in terms of D&I practices. This poll went out to employees across 14 countries, including Australia and Japan. All three APAC representatives filled out the bottom of Kantar’s inclusion index, with Canada and the US coming out as the most inclusive of the lot, followed by several European nations.

Unfortunately, things only got worse in 2020. In a similar poll conducted in Singapore’s media and marketing sector, almost three in four employees (72%) said that their organisation’s D&I policies have not shown any improvement compared with the previous year. Over 70% of professionals in the region said they felt that their abilities are still judged based on their gender, and 43% believe they were judged by their race. This was especially stark in multi-racial societies such as Singapore.

Besides those two facets of D&I, the study also found that work arrangements and management styles catered even less to employees’ varied needs such as caretaking responsibilities or physical ability – about 59% in 2020 versus 75% in 2017. All of this in a year that demanded more empathy, compassion and understanding in terms of treating the employee as a ‘whole person’ with mental health needs and personal duties beyond work.

Read more: CEOs don’t feel responsible for employee performance

Global movements inspire change in Asia

Of course, there’s always hope for change - especially after mass movements swept through the globe. Issues like #MeToo and the stunning Black Lives Matter movements have successfully raised awareness and a demand for change, and corporates have been responding in kind. Even though both didn’t take root in Asia, they managed to encourage conversations around peoples’ rights and empower individuals to speak up about the wrongs.

Kantar found that following #MeToo, over 77% of individuals in Asia were likely to speak out against harassment, with another one in three open to report their experiences. As for the ‘younger’ BLM movement, the impact was less apparent with only half (53%) of companies in Asia discussing issues like anti-racism in the aftermath.

Read more: Why leaders fail to tackle racial bias

Growing awareness of ‘diversity issue’

However, with social media gripping everyone’s attention, employees will become more aware of issues around bias and eventually demand a more deliberate approach to inclusivity – whether companies choose to communicate with their workforces or not. Take a recent report by the ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants), which found that half of Singapore-based employees believed the sector has a ‘diversity issue’ that needs to be addressed. What’s more, over 70% of workers said more should be done to promote D&I in the profession. One in four felt that their workplaces are only ‘partially’ inclusive, with another 10% saying the industry’s outright biased in their practices.

Meanwhile those who are keen to effect change weren’t sure where to start. When asked if they knew what could be done to promote D&I at work, almost three in five employees said they’re only ‘partially’ sure or have no clue what steps to take. Additionally, about 60% of professionals were doubtful about their ability to help improve the situation at work.

On a positive note, employees believed that having an effective D&I strategy was crucial for the business bottom line. Close to three in four professionals said they saw a strong link between workplace policies and organisational success. They were certain that policy can enable a variety of perspectives (48%), lead to better decision-making (41%) and increase employee engagement (38%).

Read more: Measuring the ROI: How to show diversity’s value

What step should you take after raising awareness?

So now you’ve got employees on your side. They’re aware of the issues and are demanding change, plus they understand the importance of a strong strategy – what now? The short answer is you need to do the hard work and show that the organisation is ‘walking the talk’. Getting everyone on the same page, both employees and leaders, is vital to drive real change.

Like O.C. Tanner’s global culture report found, having D&I initiatives in place isn’t enough to drive the agenda. When they asked employees why they think existing programs fail, they said that:

  • Senior leaders didn’t prioritise D&I (38%)
  • Other employees simply didn’t care about it (32%)
  • There isn’t an organisational commitment to the agenda (30%)

This showed that employees were aware that driving inclusion isn’t the responsibility of just one person. If anyone can attest to that, it’s someone helming the role like Preet Grewal, head of inclusion and diversity for JAPAC at Twitter.

“It should not just be about appointing one person to do I&D and then it’s in that person’s job title, ‘so now you go and do it’ – that’s not possible,” Grewal told HRD. “You have to give that one person the authority to impact through influence. You have to give that person a team of people that can really drive better conversations that are embedded in the business.

“You have to really think of inclusion and diversity not as an HR issue but really, as a conversation to be had about [issues like] how do I think about everything at my company from that high-end lens? Whether it’s people policies, product policies, or whether it is outside community engagement, everything should come through the I&D lens.”

Read more: How to have ‘difficult conversations’ at work

Can you drive D&I without a hefty investment?

Being in the role, Grewal believes that it’s important to allocate resources and make the necessary investments to drive inclusion, but she understands that not everyone can do so, especially in the current economic climate. That doesn’t mean you need to give up your ambitions to drive change. She suggested some simple steps that can help develop a genuine culture around inclusivity.

  • Enable employee-led business resource groups (BRG)

Her team has relied heavily on BRGs to create a sense of community. BRGs can help you “move the conversation beyond” what policy change you can do or what benefits you can give to your employees to create a genuine feeling of inclusion. She said this is a “very easy way of creating a sense of belonging” and to empower employees to come together and discuss their challenges or experiences.

  • Urge mindfulness around language and behaviour at work

Offer a guide on the use of inclusive language, whether in formal written policies or practices, or in daily team interactions. Consider how you can help your teams to be more deliberate in their conversations. Suggest the use of inclusive vocabulary to drive a sense of inclusion daily. “Yes, you do need to have systemic changes, the policy changes and the mind shift on the leadership level to drive inclusion and diversity, but at the same time the day-to-day interactions between two people are equally important in creating the culture,” she said.

Having been a strong advocate for I&D throughout her career and observing the shifts in the corporate world, Grewal shared her optimism about Asia’s potential for progress.

“It’s a positive thing and I have a lot of gratitude for the way companies are showing up for I&D given the past year,” she said. “I just want to see more and more conversations about I&D become front and centre. I think companies have really leaned into wellness a lot this past year as well, which is a really big change for Asia. In this part of the world, we’re now talking about mental health, about being a working parent, and opening up your house to your colleagues and having meetings.

“I would like to see this sustainable change go on and we don’t go back to closing our doors and only looking at I&D as a ‘checkbox exercise’ that’s good to do. Companies need to really continue with the progression that we’ve seen so far and lean in even more. That’s my hope.”

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