Diversity is only the ethical thing to do if you hire people for what they can bring not who they are

06 April 2022

Tags: Diversity

If diversity really is the Right Thing To Do, then why aren’t companies making more actual progress?

To what extent is enhancing diversity a moral issue and to what extent is it a business issue and do those things necessarily contradict each other? I ask because I spend many hours in my professional life working with organisations on diversity trying to stop people saying that it is “the right thing to do”. One CEO in a global transport business – lovely bloke and very well motivated – said it so often that I suggested we tested it with their people. So we did. And they vehemently disagreed with him! They understood diversity as a numbers game. In an industry that was dominated by a male workforce over 40, to them it just meant they’d be sacked and replaced with women. They saw it as a zero-sum game.

The assertion is also just too generalised to be any kind of ethical guide to the need for diversity. “Good for business” and “the right thing to do” has overtones of the motherhood and apple pie appeal of “be nice to people”. It’s oversimplified. But it’s pervasive. Many of you will have spent hours at events trapped in darkened hotel function rooms all day being drowned in PowerPoint and pelted with digestible bullets for business by a diversity pro wearing a rainbow lanyard. Who then almost always concludes, with a sweeping sense of certainty, that ‘diversity is not just the right thing to do, it’s good for business’. 

Except that it isn’t. It certainly can be. In the best circumstances, with the right design and focus it will be. When the right mix of people is combined to solve the right kinds of problems. When it’s a conscious talent strategy to achieve what your organisation is there for. Then it is good for business. But not always and not in relation to every kind of problem or challenge. Or business. Stating that it is, is a duck-billed platitude that is neither true nor effective. Saying it’s the right thing to do is just in danger of just being a form of corporate virtue signalling. Plucked at random from company reports: ‘We are passionate about diversity.’ ‘We want to ensure that we have a workforce as diverse as the communities in which we operate.’ ‘A diverse workforce is integral [to our business].’ And so on and so forth. Look at my company, look at our brand. Come work for us, come buy from us. We really care!

Enhancing diversity is certainly the ‘right thing to do’ for organisations when it directly affects the ambitions and prospects for the talent of its people. Eradicating the diversity deficits sends a powerful message. If you look to the top of your organisation and see no one who looks like you, it just saps energy and reinforces the impact of organisational and pervasive disadvantage. If you are in one of those groups of people outside the status quo in a business, all the research suggests that you simply have to work harder and make more of an effort to get into and then rise up the business. Moreover, your likelihood of then succeeding, even with all that extra effort, is still considerably smaller than your mainstream colleagues. Reducing the diversity deficits raises morale when it is successful and opens up routes for talent – to whatever level.

Which is the key – opening up talent in order to enhance your organisation’s ability to achieve its objectives. Diversity is not a thing on its own, it doesn’t hang in the air separate from the rest of the business. It is an approach to developing the right talent, innovation, products, services and markets which fulfil the business’s ambitions and purpose.

There is inherently something ethical about tackling discrimination and removing barriers to people’s life chances and ambition. In recognising their talent and not rejecting or undervaluing what they can do because of who they are. This certainly has a social and ethical value. But, as much as it is wrong to reject people for who they are, business owes it to those people not to hire and promote them just because of who they are. Diversity is not a numbers game. People who belong to groups who typically experience this discrimination are not all the same. 

When CEOs often say to me “We need more women”. I often say, “Let’s pop out to the High Street then and get six assorted”. Of course, they challenge that was not what they meant. And I know they didn’t mean it, but until they can articulate clearly exactly why a better mix of men and women, and the differences they can bring when combined, would improve performance, assessment of risk, deliberation in the Board or Exec meetings, then they won’t realise the dividend that that increased diversity can realise. 

Furthermore, diversity is not a minority sport. It’s about the combination of the differences that we all bring. It’s not about adding spice to a stew - and I am terribly sorry about the Hallmark card feeling to this, but people remember it – it’s about changing the recipe. You can’t be diverse, you can only bring diversity. So we should hire and promote people on the basis not of who they are, but of what they bring through who they are. It is as insulting to hire someone for who they are as it is to discriminate against them for who they are. 

Instead of the bland blah, blah, blah of most corporate diversity statements, in part of our work through Diversity by Design we focus on developing effective change by working with the senior teams to tie down accurately exactly what kind of diversity will enhance what they are trying to achieve - their Diversity Framework. A favourite example of mine was the Head of an English Department in a significant University who asked us to help diversify the staff. However, the department had great student attainment, research, resources, reputation and diversity of students and I could not understand what problem the Head was trying to solve. Then they said “It’s quite simply stated. There is great literature being written in English by people who are not English.” What the Head wanted in the staff was not ethnic diversity. It was much more specific to the goals of the Department. It was cultural and geographic diversity that would reflect the global nature of the contemporary English Literature Canon.

Translate that to your own business. The ethical and effective approach is to recruit and promote people because you properly value what they can bring through their personal as well as professional experience, and then combine that equally with what others bring. This respects their talent and personality as well as their identity and gains value for the team or company through the combination of talents. 

To do this businesses have to reframe their approach to talent - specifically recruitment and promotion - so that it operates explicitly to create teams of difference and supporting them to see difference in their team members, value it and combine it. Businesses certainly need to understand the barriers to advancement that certain groups do experience as a result of belonging to that group, but they should not confuse that with an individual’s talent, ambition and aspiration. For diversity to be the right thing to do, it has to be the thing you do in the right way.


Simon Fanshawe
Simon Fanshawe

Diversity by Design

Simon co-founded Stonewall, which transformed the face of gay rights. Simon was an original member of the generation that transformed stand-up in the UK (and he won the Perrier Award).  

Simon led the team, which transformed Brighton from a declining seaside town to one of the UK’s creative brainpower capitals, as Chair of the successful city bid in 2000 and of the Brighton & Hove Economic Partnership, the city’s strategy body.  And now Simon is working to transform the organisational performance of organisations in the public, private and third sectors (including FTSE companies, SMEs, Universities, Housing Associations and The Scouts!).

He is a formidable public speaker, a much in demand Chair of conferences and events, and a well-known broadcaster. For six years (2007 – 2013) he was The Chair of the Council of the University of Sussex. He currently serves on the Boards of the Brighton Dome and Festival, Housing & Care 21, The Kaleidoscope Trust and The Museum of London.

He recently co-authored a report for The Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr), with Dhanajayan Sriskandarajah, called "You Can’t Put Me In A Box”, which outlines the approach. The analysis is refreshing.

Simon’s career has spanned live performance, broadcasting, journalism, training and advocacy on leadership and equality & diversity and as a non-exec. He has had several of his own series on Radio 4, Radio 5 and Talk Radio. He makes documentaries for the BBC on both Radio and TV. He is a regular on BBC Breakfast (BBC1).

He has written extensively on the arts, politics, housing and equality & diversity for all the national newspapers. He has had columns in the Guardian, Sunday Times, and Time Out.

He chairs and speaks at conferences and training programmes for a range of organisations both commercial and in public service. He has advised government on equalities, economic regeneration and the arts. He was awarded the OBE in the New Years Honours list 2013 for services to Higher Education. And he was made an Honorary Doctor of the University of Sussex for services to diversity and human rights in 2013.

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