Diversity: an important discussion

Diversity. What is it and why is it so important? We spoke to diversity expert and cultural trainer Sadi Khan to find out more.

People Diversity Faces Human Face Portrait Community She highlighted the importance of diversity training, which was emphasised to her by a recent shopping experience. Asking a member of staff for a Ramzaan calendar, they reacted by telling her they “didn’t sell that type of vegetable”.

They then compounded matters by fetching an Asian member of staff to deal with her request.

What is diversity training?

Sadi explained this means different things to different people and organisations, but in effect it’s training on the need for a diverse workforce and on the Single Equalities Act of 2010. This provides a legal framework to protect individuals from unfair treatment.

The Act also promotes more equal opportunities for all.

It is now against the law to discriminate against anyone who falls into what are called the 9 protected characteristics, which include age, race, gender and disability.

You’re protected under this law at work, in education, as a customer, when renting property and as a member or guest of a private club or association.

The majority of organisations offer diversity training, which skims this – and so staff walk out not knowing what the different types of discrimination are and who is protected.

In fact, most organisations focus on gender, race and disability, but not the other strands. Religion, belief and cultural understanding is just as important, if not more, but these are often completely overlooked.

And most large companies – including the supermarket Sadi was in – will have pieces of paper declaring them to be trained in diversity and will have diversity ‘champions’ or one person allocated to this area (who will not have had specialised training on the nine separate strands).

This is a case in point: it should be everyone’s responsibility, not just one person. And it’s not just about the nine strands. It’s about diversity of experience, minds, backgrounds, attitudes, thoughts. It’s the CEO, the part timer, the front-line manager.

As a nation, if we are to take diversity and equality serious,  it must go further and deeper than a box-ticking exercise. This means getting past the notion that only an Asian can help another Asian.

According to Sadi, the only effective type of training is that which gets everyone fully involved, fully on board and fully engaged. The higher the diversity mix, the bigger the chances of conflict.

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So, if an organisation has a responsibility to have a diverse workforce, it must also make sure they understand each other and feel comfortable together so they can work towards the company’s goals and targets.

Many organisations have community projects but have no real idea of which communities they are working with. So there needs to be a clearer understanding of each community’s needs for these projects to be effective.

Workplace policies also need to be effective as well as inclusive. For example, many businesses have policies in place for prayer time. But how does this impact the rest of the staff. There’s no point having a policy in place for one group which will cause conflict with another. That isn’t inclusive.

Sadi explained how words, too, are hugely important. Dignity and respect is a part of most organisation’s framework, but do they know what this means to someone for example from the South Asian or black community? Words mean different things to different people.

And this is something that businesses need to tackle – for commercial reasons as much as any. Organisations with a strong ethnic mix outperform others by around 35% – that’s a pretty emphatic statistic to back up the need for a diverse workforce. But this can only work if you understand your workforce and help them feel an integral part of the company.

So how can we shake things up?

Here’s a scenario which highlights how we could make some changes.

A large organisation is genuinely keen to get involved with companies promoting diversity and sends their diversity champions and staff along to conferences and workshops.

But all the speakers are English white women and men. Not reflective of the communities across the UK or the 9 protected characteristics. Only by offering a balanced range of speakers from all cultures and the 9 protected characteristics can these companies truly promote diversity.

What do we need training in?

There is a huge number of cultural differences in the workplace and the home. Sadi’s company Noble Khan offers training at all levels, including to people looking to work in the UK.

They train them in how they can integrate effectively in the workplace – for example, in the UK, workers are expected to be self starters and use their initiative. In certain countries, this is a complete no-no – they would simply be expected to do as their boss tells them.

And in the UK, the workplace is seen as somewhere to make friends – again, not always the norm from those coming from different communities.

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It’s important for organisations to realise this before people start work. Just because someone can speak English does not mean they understand how we work and live here. They need training as well.

Noble Khan’s British culture course for the workplace is ideal and sensitive to the needs of those from ethnic minority backgrounds, struggling to reach their true potential in the workplace.

What are the barriers to effective diversity?

Attitude, mindset and budgets are just a few – as Sadi says, there are so many.

When it comes to recruitment and promotions, the lack of diversity and representation may have a lot to do with unconscious bias. This is where we make very quick judgements without realising – and it’s often controlled by our backgrounds, culture, upbringing and experiences.

The media doesn’t help – we’re bombarded with certain opinions and images and it can be hard to form our own unclouded judgements. They go for the controversial angle because it attracts viewers and readers. The extremist cleric with the long beard spouting hate will make headlines. The hard-working Muslim going to work in an office won’t.

Fear is also a big factor. In our age of political correctness, people aren’t sure how to behave or what to say, and are frightened of offending so don’t say anything at all. The right training can remove this fear and help people interact naturally and easily across all communities and ethnicities. In turn, this can improve sales, employee engagement, branding, customer service and help businesses to reach new markets.

Inclusion is another aspect of diversity. For example, Sadi was once asked to go on a mentoring programme for ethnic minorities. She refused. She went to university with her white counterparts, male and female. So she didn’t see why she should be stuck on a separate course.

Inclusion needs to start at an early age. Children need to feel understood, respected and part of the bigger picture. the need to feel they play a major role in school.  If they feel misunderstood, this is when problems can set in as they start feeling excluded.

Teachers can play a huge role in giving children hope and aspirations. Sadi cites her own headmaster, Brian McKinney, as a great example. He made her feel included, important, talented, when she was the only brown face in the whole school.  She says she never felt odd or like she didn’t belong.

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Diversity in the community

And while employees can benefit from training in these areas, what about if it’s not on offer in your workplace?

Sadi’s advice? There are loads of things you can do outside work to make your life a little more multicultural – whatever background you come from.

  • Why not find a local event run by a different religion or nationality than your own? You’ll be welcome to attend, learn something new and will make some new friends outside your usual circle.
  • If you have neighbours you haven’t spoken to yet because they’re from a different culture, go and give them a knock and say hello. Invite them over for a cuppa. You’ll be surprised how positive most people’s reactions will be.
  • Encourage your kids to mix with a diverse range of friends, and don’t just stick to playdates with kids from your own background. Children are very receptive, and it’s a great start in life for them to learn how to play with others.
  • Don’t always wait for others to make the first move. Do it yourself. Next time you see a woman in front of you wearing a headscarf say hello and ask for the time. Break the fear.

So what for Sadi is effective diversity? It’s the difference between theory and practice. The piece of paper saying you’ve done a diversity course? Fab.

But if you freeze when someone from another culture approaches you, the piece of paper is worthless. It’s not good business to have one token brown, black, disabled or LGBT face to deal with those similar to them. If they all get up and move jobs, all their knowledge goes with them. Everyone needs these skills, and knowledge and understanding is transferable.

It’s about being accountable. If you don’t reach those diversity targets or profits – make everyone accountable. You might not know the answer about the product but you can go and find out and come back and speak to your customer yourself. They won’t bite.

Talent has no colour and it has no gender. It’s just talent. Companies need to pick the right person for the job, with no other considerations. And we can take this theory into our everyday lives.

Friendships also transcend colour, religion, gender, age…  it’s time for a new era of diversity.

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About Kay Garrett

I’m Henpicked's editor, which means I'm lucky enough to spend my time reading the fabulous articles our authors send in. I'm a massive James Bond fan, an Agatha Christie geek and love films and books in general. Most of my spare time is spent with my husband and our two lively and very lovely daughters.