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02 April 2009

Diversity in the downturn: what’s the business case?

Last week I attended a very interesting multi-company workshop on diversity in the downturn, organised by Opportunity Now and hosted by the UK headquarters of a major pharmaceutical firm.  We were a small group of nine, from a very diverse range of organisations: professional services (me), a global car rental firm, a university, an energy supplier, a mail and distribution company and Business in the Community , ON’s umbrella organisation.

Discussions ranged initially around the everyday difficulties of trying to maintain diversity and inclusion priorities against a changing global landscape of fear, chaos, change and budget cuts.  We identified some of the workplace challenges as follows:

  • Job insecurity for many, coupled with “survivor syndrome” for those who retain their jobs when colleagues and friends lose out;
  • Leaders and managers defaulting to “old” behaviours and habits and taking refuge in being change averse;
  • Obviously – budget and resource cuts impacting people and programmes;
  • The impact on HR caused by restructuring activities and a revised focus on organisational change – do HR colleagues still have the time and capacity to support diversity based activities?
  • Are some staff within both visible and invisible minority groups now being subjected to bullying and harassment, perhaps from those who have defaulted to “old” behaviours and, for fear of losing their jobs, do the bullied not feel able to complain?
  • And finally – is the diversity agenda now attracting cynicism as being “nice to have, but only in the good times”?

Our conversation turned to ideas on how to act and behave during this difficult period. How can we survive and get fit for the future, how can we balance long term trends with short term viability?  One suggestion came from the need to respond in a positive manner to re-structuring opportunities and to work to preserve an organisation’s existing investment in diversity based activities. 

So we had a very interesting debate, which was then mirrored for me earlier this week in a Gender Advisory Council setting, around the need to refresh and revisit the business case, and to change both the agenda and the vocabulary that we use when presenting the case for diversity.  If we acknowledge that the previous business case was based on, in the case of gender, women bringing innovation to the boardroom, being perhaps more risk averse and that companies with women at the board level are more financially successful, then we also have to ask ourselves - is that still true and does a “one size fits all” business case still fit the businesses fighting for survival in these unprecedented times? 

This Diversity Inc article, “What Would Happen if Women Ran Wall Street?” makes an interesting case for diversity in that particular business sector, but I found myself wondering that, if I were, for example, the male CEO of a crisis hit residential construction firm, with an all male board, would I be persuaded by the argument that my company and business sector would have emerged unscathed from a global credit crunch and a near unprecedented collapse of the housing market if I had only appointed a more diverse leadership team? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

Circling back, we returned to the people issue: does the argument that running a diverse and inclusive organisation assists with employee attraction and retention hold water when people are no longer such a scarce resource?  I suppose the latter argument neatly brings us back to the cynicism referenced above.  The ON group concluded that employee engagement is now more significant than ever but we reluctantly agreed that obtaining participation and leadership buy-in is currently very difficult when focus is elsewhere.

Moving on - the G20 Summit started in London earlier this week, and so we have the Obamas and their retinue in town on their first overseas visit of the Presidency. Leaving aside my profound (and predictable) irritation at the dinner hosted by Sarah Brown for Michelle Obama being described in such lazy language as a “girls’ night in”, and by way of a contrast, here’s a link to a series of articles on Michelle which appeared in New York magazine last month.  Jennifer Senior’s contribution, and the on-line responses to it, are particularly thought provoking. And the piece on the constant references to Mrs Obama’s height (similar to my own, in fact) made me smile in the context of seeing the UK press coverage photos of both Obamas positively towering over the Queen and Prince Philip.

Until next time –


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