How can a benefits strategy foster and celebrate cultural diversity?

cultural diversity

Need to know:

  • Diversity of experience, opinion and background can have a significant effect on profitability, and diverse organisations are more likely to foster employee engagement.
  • Mentoring and sponsorship can help to ensure that individuals are able to progress, despite potential barriers due to ethnicity.
  • Open communication, among employees and between staff and leaders, is integral for promoting understanding, shaping benefits and discovering problems and solutions.
  • There are numerous ways in which employers can accommodate and celebrate religious and cultural diversity, but strategy and consistency is key.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) resource for employers, Creating a faith-friendly workplace for Muslims, published in September 2016, notes that 27% of the Muslim population in Wales, 49% of whom are under 25, have a degree. This is compared to 25% of all people living in Wales. However, 67% of Welsh Muslims aged 16 to 24 are economically active, compared to 86% of all Welsh people in that age group.

This evidence of young, educated, untapped talent should itself be enough to motivate employers to make their organisation as appealing as possible to a diverse range of employees.

In addition, McKinsey’s report, Delivering through diversity: diversity and financial performance in 2017, published in January 2018, shows that organisations in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity are 33% more likely to have above average profitability than those in the fourth quartile.

Diverse and inclusive groups make better quality decisions, with less cognitive bias and groupthink, while varied experiences and perspectives allow for better problem solving.

Sandra Kerr, race equality director for Business in the Community (BITC), says: “It can be quite costly to make a decision where you don’t take the best and wisest scope of perspectives into account before you decide to progress. And what a waste, to have people who have got the ability but have not had access based on ethnicity.”

Add to this improved employee satisfaction, and the evidence is clear that any organisation wanting to strengthen its brand, talent pool, employee engagement and profitability should think seriously about its approach to cultural diversity.

Making the talent pipeline work for everyone

Employers must be confident that there are no barriers in their talent pipeline. One method Kerr suggests is to facilitate two-way mentorship. “It’s a great opportunity to enable the senior leader to understand the experience of different people in their workforce, as well as the employee obviously getting the benefit of that leader’s experience,” she explains.

Sponsorship, in which the mentor actively takes responsibility for promoting an employee for appropriate projects and opportunities they might otherwise not have heard about, can be an even better method of breaking down invisible barriers.

It is also important to honestly examine all processes, from recruitment up through the talent pipeline, to watch for significant areas of drop-off in terms of diversity. From there, organisations can implement targeted, relevant initiatives. This might, for example, take the form of unconscious bias training, additional skills education or fast-track programmes.

Tamsin Sridhara, director at Willis Towers Watson, says: “[Employers should] work out what [their] priorities are in terms of talent, and what [their] data is telling [them their] issues are.”

Opportunities to connect

Forums, networks and affinity groups can help employees of all backgrounds find role models, exchange stories, discuss problems and enlarge their networks. Building internal networks can ensure that individuals, who might otherwise have felt alienated and isolated, gain a sense of connectedness within their organisation.

For example, BT has a range of internal employee networks, including those for women, ethnic minorities, Christians and Muslims.

Alternatively, encouraging and facilitating employees to join external networks can provide many of the same advantages, with the added benefit of removing potentially sensitive conversations at work.

However, employers should be aware of the difficulties that might face those wanting to attend sessions outside of business hours, adds Charles Cotton, senior performance and reward adviser at the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD).

Organisations should consider whether additional benefits such as childcare provisions might help ensure employees have the necessary flexibility.

Being broad with benefits

It is crucial not to assume that there is a universal norm in terms of expected or desired benefits, says Thais Compoint, chief executive officer and founder of Déclic International. “Having a range of perks and benefits is important, because you should not impose the exact same benefits on everyone.”

Looking through a broad lens can be a daunting task, but there are other ways of providing flexibility, notes Mark Ramsook, head of sales and marketing at Willis Towers Watson. 

“What we see from some employers, is they’re making a provision that enables people to cater to their personal needs, be it cultural or otherwise,” explains Ramsook. “[This is] encapsulated within the concept of delivering some sort of wellness or wellbeing fund. The employee then has pretty wide discretion as to how they use it.”

Faith-friendly, not faith-avoiding 

When it comes to standard benefits such as pensions, and how they might take cultural diversity into account, there are methods such as Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) funds, that allow an opportunity to tailor investments to particular moral or religious tenets.

Flexible working is also becoming increasingly desirable among employees across the board.

“Having a policy that focuses on flexible working for all, irrespective of their need or reason, should help build a more inclusive culture,” says Cotton.

In addition, although providing additional holiday for religious events might not always be possible, employers should at least examine their leave policies. “Are there things that can inadvertently stop a big chunk of [the] workforce taking time off at that point in time, and what can [the employer] do to mitigate that?” Cotton asks.

Celebrating a range of religious holidays in the office, setting up a dedicated diversity week, or curating an event in which employees share traditional foods are all examples of methods organisations use to create a positive social dialogue around cultural diversity.

One change many employers are making to ensure their offices are as welcoming as possible is providing a multi-faith prayer room or quiet room.

Ruth Coombs, head of Wales for the EHRC, notes: “[A prayer room] benefits everybody, not just employees with a particular faith, because everybody knows there’s a quiet room and that they can go in there, which is hugely important in today’s hustle and bustle. In fact, all of these [provisions] benefit everybody, because people will learn more about each other and [the organisation will] have a much more understanding workforce, and a happy workforce is a productive workforce.”

Two-way communications

It is integral to approach employee requests, complaints or suggestions from a starting point of acceptance. Simple solutions are often discovered once a discussion with the employee has taken place, such as providing beard nets for those working with food, or agreeing that an employee in a lab will wear a shorter headscarf.

If it is impossible to make the necessary provisions, employers should be able to rest assured that, to the best of their ability, an attempt was made to facilitate diverse needs. Instances of rejection should be the exception, not the rule.

A thorough communication strategy can help employers to discover simple accommodations, find areas in which the organisation is falling behind, and raise issues or solutions that leadership might not have even considered.

However, BITC’s Race at work survey, published in November 2015, showed that only 37% of employee respondents felt their colleagues were open to discussing race.

Employee engagement surveys are a strong starting point, particularly if an organisation is then able to break down the results into specific demographics. Focus groups and forums can also help raise and solve certain issues, as well as generally clearing up misunderstandings and facilitating open communication surrounding cultural differences.

Strategy and fundamental shifts

“An employer needs to have a strategy,” says Compoint. “It’s important to celebrate events, to have communications around raising awareness, this is all valuable. But it’s important to have a true strategy, otherwise it can seem to be very cosmetic.”

For example, refusing to allow flexible working around Ramadan to suit those who are fasting, but then sending celebratory emails around the event, is likely to disengage employees more than doing nothing at all.

It is also essential to measure and understand the effects of any strategy, adds Ramsook. “Organisations have grand expectations to make changes and deliver and develop far-reaching plans, but it’s very hard for them to do any of this unless they monitor and measure; they need data, information and feedback.”

Organisations should define their benefits and diversity strategy based on the same principles that drive their business strategies. Combine this approach with detailed analytics, open communication, and measurements of uptake and engagement, and a step can be taken toward having a comprehensive and fundamental approach to cultural diversity.

This kind of cultural shift might sound daunting, but is not only important, but feasible, concludes Coombs. “The barrier is to do with employers not understanding, not feeling confident about what they would need to do to just change things slightly. But actually, when [they] do it, it is not as hard as [they] thought it was going to be.”

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