All views welcome… as long as they’re ours

Post #9: Claire reflects on the conflicts at the heart of the diversity and inclusion debate

Regular readers of our blog will know that I postponed this subject from October to make way for a topical blog about Dark Angels. And I’m glad I did, because on October 3rd, I spent the morning at Belonging Space’s “The Belonging Summit – the UK’s first summit on belonging, culture and business success”.

There was a fascinating talk by an academic on group psychology and behaviour, which demonstrated why a herd mentality forms so easily, and how difficult it can be to break such a mentality, despite glaringly obvious evidence to the contrary. (I summarise badly, no doubt, but the point was, we all need a few mavericks outside the herd to stop groupthink taking over – no surprises there, I’m sure.) Also at the event was the HR head of a global company who discussed how they recruit people based on the company’s values, essential to which was today’s business mantra: diversity and inclusion.

The most memorable thing for me about the event, however, was not the talk, excellent though it was, but the debate between these two. The HR head was keen to emphasise the importance of diversity in their recruitment, while the academic argued that selecting solely by values in itself creates an exclusive (and therefore non-diverse) group – namely people who believe in those values. If the company genuinely wanted to incorporate different points of view (diversity and inclusivity), then they should recruit at least a few people who don’t believe in those values. This would give them their mavericks who would challenge the status quo and really provide that diversity of views that they say they’re looking for.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with recruiting by your values – for a company to be unique, true to its brand and so forth, it needs to have people who buy into its purpose and will behave in certain ways. And there are some values and types of behaviour that most companies just don’t want demonstrated by their people – and no one else would either – so perhaps it’s a good thing that companies don’t recruit a few mavericks with dubious attitudes. But what interested me at this event was the idea that diversity as a concept could be properly represented by one self-selecting group of people – which of course it can’t.

This inconsistency reminded me of the inconsistencies we often see in the debates (or arguments) around gender diversity – one of reporting’s current hot topics. On the one hand, we hear, particularly with regards recruitment and promotion (often stridently) – ‘men and women are the same! It’s ridiculous to say otherwise’; while on the other we hear, often with regards Board appointments, about the importance of recruiting more women, because they bring a diversity of views which is hugely valuable.

Surely they can’t both be true. Either men and women are the same, in which case having more women on a Board won’t make any difference; or they’re not, in which case appointing women (if they’re good) will bring that diversity of views which is so valuable. I’m rather over-simplifying it, of course, but, rather like the discussion at the event, too often one hears people using the ‘everyone’s the same’ argument to ensure that women are promoted or paid equally, while simultaneously using the counter-argument ‘we need diversity so we need to recruit more women’. They can do this, of course, because today it’s become almost impossible for anyone to question the received orthodoxy – at least if they value their job.

It’s admirable that companies are seriously addressing issues of diversity and inclusion, and generally have excellent intentions – long may they continue. But, if it’s not too much of a cliché, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and it seems to me that if people are not allowed to debate issues openly and challenge widely accepted attitudes, then we do this tremendously important subject a disservice. We need a corporate culture that genuinely allows people to share and debate their views openly and honestly, whatever they are. After all, it’s only with debate and challenge that good ideas can be tested and made better, and bad ideas thrown out.

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