Not so many years ago, most references to diversity were coupled with an allusion to tolerance.
And that was not necessarily such a good thing.
E. M. Forster called tolerance “a very dull virtue. It is negative,” he said. “It merely means putting up with people, being able to stand things.”
While tolerance of people is undoubtedly better in most cases than intolerance, the emphasis on diversity in contemporary thinking has shifted markedly in recent times to being a glass half-full.
Diversity has increasingly come to be associated with positives – and as something that we are distinctly the poorer for, if it’s missing.
And that is the case with respect to workplaces and workforces, as it is with nation states.
On the first Tuesday of November Barack Obama delivered a victory speech to the American people to acknowledge his election victory and to set the tone of his second presidential term.
His language extolled the greatness of America as many of you would have heard.
The speech is fundamentally cast in language that exalts the merits of diversity.
This is part of what he said:
“I believe we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you live. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”
“And together, with your help and God’s grace,” he said, “we will continue our journey forward and remind the world just why it is that we live in the greatest nation on earth.”
The speech is heavy on rhetoric as you might expect, and Americans tend to not be backward in asserting the greatness of their nation.
They are a proud people and, despite their problems in recent years, have much to be proud of.
All that said, another way to describe the Obama speech is to see it as setting out one of the classic arguments for the diversity business case.
America is great not because it encourages uniformity, sameness and a monoculture but because it celebrates difference in its many manifestations.
A workforce that lacks diversity today would be one which is suspect with regard to its potential for innovation and creativity.
It would be regarded, by and large, as a workforce that is at a competitive disadvantage to its rivals.
And conversely, astute management of diversity is now increasingly recognised as leading to business benefits.
Two years ago, three Ernst & Young Partners were commissioned by the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants to brief its Risk Oversight and Governance Board on diversity.
Among other things, the paper pointed out that failure to adequately address diversity “could present a risk to a company’s ability to innovate, attract clients and partners, or keep pace within its industry”.
In receiving the briefing advice, the Interim Chair of the Board, Giles Meikle, noted that diversity is “increasingly regarded as a business imperative”, with benefits deriving from areas such as organisational performance and problem solving.
The paper concluded that diversity is a strategic business issue and needs to be responded to on that understanding.
It alluded also to PepsiCo, a company that responded in just that way and attributed one percentage point of its 7.4% revenue growth in 2003, or about US$250 million, to new products inspired by diversity efforts through expansion into ethnically diverse markets.
The company had made use of its ethnically diverse workforce to obtain unique insights into the needs of customers in those markets.
The customer factor is a critical part of the diversity business case.
A former National HR manager of the Australian Federal Police, Stephen Walker, noted that research by Harris Interactive found that three quarters of gay and close to a half (42%) of straight consumers in the US are less likely to buy products from companies perceived to hold negative views of lesbians and gay men.
In addition to pointing out the danger of not taking inclusion into account with customers, Walker also drew attention to the business benefits of pink.
The gay and lesbian market in the US, he said, has an annual buying power in the order of US$743 billion.
And as far back as far as 2004, he noted The Age reporting that the Australian equivalent market of gay and lesbian households commands an annual disposable income of AUD10 billion.
Those customer bases are neglected at the peril of business.
But they are more likely to be neglected where workplace cultures are not inclusive, and impact negatively on staff retention and customer engagement.
Some organisations worked out the value of diversity some time ago.
IBM’s diversity experience has been 15 years in the making, according to the Ernst & Young briefing.
In 1995, then CEO Lou Gerstner launched a diversity initiative that changed the culture of the company and it became a cornerstone of its strategy.
It created eight task forces, each focusing on a different affinity group.
That was later expanded to 72 diversity councils and 160 employee network groups within the company.
From that time it made progress also in diversifying its leadership.
Female executives increased 370 per cent.
And the number of ethnic minority executives that were born in the US increased by 233 per cent, and they have positive policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) co-workers that make it an employer of choice.
The diversity taskforce groups’ recommendations to the marketing department translated into hundreds of millions of dollars of new revenue.
And the taskforce for people with disabilities recommended that IBM launch an initiative to seek government contracts by making its products more accessible.
That effort alone generated in excess of US$ 1 billion of revenue by 2009.
So we have some very positive diversity role models among the world’s top companies and yet today reminds us how much more we still have to do in all fields of diversity.
Mindful of that, I am pleased to announce that AHRI’s 2013 Diversity Awards program includes a new LGBTI Inclusion Award.
The 2013 program also includes the re-introduction of a Sir Ken Robinson Workplace Flexibility Award into the diversity suite as a better fit than in the general awards.
I should say also that the 2013 AHRI Diversity Awards are now officially open to receive entries.
Peter Wilson is the national president of the Australian Human Resources Institute.
This is an edited version of the opening address he gave to the 2012 Diversity and Inclusion Conference held in Sydney on 16 December.