When dinosaurs still roamed the land and I was appointed to my first senior human resources role in the finance sector, the first question I was asked by a line manager was “How do I get rid of so and so?” Most human resource professionals will tell you this is a common question and it usually leads to a conversation about performance, fit, conduct or the need for restructure, or maybe all of those things.
But on this particular occasion none of these seemed to apply. The person in question was a “cross-dresser”, and was making the line manager feel uncomfortable. I never did find out why. The best explanation I was given was that he thought it wasn’t good for business.
A few years later, I was faced with a similar question. This time I was working in the transport sector, and the person in question was a young woman returning to work after a motor vehicle accident. She had partial paralysis which required her to be in a wheel chair. The argument that was made was about work health and safety, and about the inconvenience required to allow for a reasonable adjustment.
Older and not much wiser, as I assess the landscape of human resources, it doesn’t seem to me that much has changed, despite a plethora of legislation that prohibits discrimination on both of these grounds. At the risk of being pigeon holed as a hipster or politically correct, I believe that as human resource professionals achieving equality of opportunity affirms the value of social and cultural diversity that is reflected in the community. But it is not just about values or morals, or about how we see and feel about ourselves.
The bottom line is that inclusion is just good business. Take the young woman in the wheel chair. By providing her with facilities, installing automatic doors, fitting out toilets and so on, all of a sudden a whole new customer segment would have been made welcome: elderly people, people with temporary injuries, other people with disabilities and so on. And making changes to allow that person to fully participate would also have meant she was more likely to remain positive, motivated and willing to contribute.
The same can be said with sexual orientation and gender identity. Diversity is about recognising and valuing the different knowledge, skills, backgrounds and perspectives that people bring to their work – regardless of whether those differences are based on age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social background or other factors.
Workforce diversity builds organisational capability. People bring to the workplace different perspectives that can support innovation, creativity, and productivity. Having a man dressed as a woman serve you at a bank counter may be unexpected the first time it happens. But what will define the experience will be the quality of service you get, and the person I was asked to manage out was an excellent employee who always made targets and whose commitment to the job was never in question.
The next big challenge then is not just in levelling out the playing field, but in having the courage to encourage and promote inclusion. That means workplace legislation, policies and regulations need to accommodate diversity. For example, allowing employees to use sick leave for gender reassignment surgery, recognising same sex spouses and identifying transgender positions. With regards to disability, while more work still needs to be done shaping attitudes, human resource professionals can lead conversations they have with procurement and finance professionals about integrating activities that promote participation. For example, every time a building fit out or a renovation is undertaken, don’t just have the builders tick the compliance box. Instead, get a few people with disabilities to road test the plan. Do the same if you are building a website, implementing a new system or process, developing an app or even if you are writing a capability framework or role profile.
Richard Perin, CAHRI, is the director of corporate operations at Destination NSW.