Should we rethink diversity at work?
The cause of diversity and inclusion in the workplace has come a long way in recent decades. With the average workforce reflecting the composition of wider society more accurately than ever before, we could easily be forgiven for thinking this is a box that has now been conclusively ticked.
Yet few problems are ever completely solved, particularly when they’re at the mercy of the law of unintended consequences. We all know workforces have become more diverse, but a directly related consideration that’s seldom given meaningful attention is whether they’ve become happier as well.
Although the point may sound facile, the implications are potentially substantial. Just as job satisfaction’s positive influence on productivity is well recognised, so the links between job dissatisfaction, absenteeism and quitting are firmly established. It’s not only employees who suffer amid workplace unhappiness: their employers and even the economy as a whole might also pay the price.
This being the case, how would we view diversity and inclusion initiatives if their ultimate effect were to make workers less happy? Given the choice between a non-diverse but contented workforce and a diverse but disenchanted one, would most managers suddenly focus on the harsh exigencies of the bottom line rather than on the noble goals of equal opportunity?
These are deeply unwelcome notions. In many ways they seem to constitute an unpleasant throwback to a less tolerant age. Yet they need to be confronted – even in our supposedly enlightened, open-minded times – because there’s worrying evidence that they may be all too relevant.
In search of uncomfortable truths
The question of disability in the workplace clearly underlines the need to acknowledge that the situation might be far removed from the rose-tinted ideal we would all like to imagine. There are two key reasons why it serves as an especially compelling illustration.
Firstly, the number of disabled employees in the UK is only likely to rise in the coming years. This is because numerous budgetary pressures are not just driving up retirement thresholds but forcing more people to move away from disability benefits and into work.
Secondly, studies of disabled workers have traditionally concentrated on either the difficulties they face in the labour market or their comparative lack of earning power. The issue of how their introduction to a workforce impacts on their fellow employees’ wellbeing has been almost entirely overlooked, whether as a result of a glib tendency to dismiss the question as redundant or a wary reluctance to discover the answer.
The jarring reality is buried in the minutiae of the British Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS), which contains information representative of all UK businesses with five or more employees. Viewed as the most authoritative and comprehensive source of its kind, the survey was most recently conducted in 2011.
Included in the wealth of WERS data are various measures of what we might loosely describe as job satisfaction. They cover factors ranging from achievement to initiative, from influence to decision-making and from pay to skills development. What happens when we cross-reference these with disabled worker numbers?
Disturbingly, we find a significant relationship between workplace diversity and workforce wellbeing – one that reveals how overall job satisfaction declines as the percentage of workers with disabilities increases. Satisfaction also falls as the number of disability-friendly policies and practices goes up. Tellingly, further analysis shows the decline is confined to workers who are not disabled.
Who or what might be to blame for this discomforting state of affairs? Is this a failure on the part of employees, firms, both or neither? And where do we go from here if all the good work done so far appears to have been unsuccessful on a vital and utterly fundamental level?
Complacency versus commitment
At least at first glance, the fact that only workers who aren’t disabled report lower job satisfaction suggests the existence of discrimination. This would be a profoundly depressing explanation. Somewhat thankfully, closer examination of the data steers us elsewhere.
Crucially, these trends can be found only in the private sector. We might, therefore, infer that the cause is much less individual and much more organisational. In short, this looks like a matter of corporate culture.
It’s vital to try to understand quite what this means – and, just as importantly, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean diversity and inclusion initiatives are a waste of time. It doesn’t mean all efforts in this direction so far have been at best fruitless and at worst thoroughly corrosive.
It does mean, though, that there’s room for improvement. It means better workplace policies and practices are required. And it means managers and workers alike need an even greater awareness of the value of accommodating all employees.
It also very probably means we’ve become complacent. We’ve witnessed a genuine transformation and have felt able to rest on our laurels. We’ve slipped into a “mission accomplished” mindset. As with so many other facets of modern-day corporate life, we’ve allowed the gap between rhetoric and reality to widen.
That gap has to be narrowed, and for this to happen complacency will have to give way to renewed commitment. The truth may be unwelcome, but it can’t be ignored. For all the progress of the past half-century or more, this box is still to be ticked.
Dr. Getinet Haile is an assistant professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School – [email protected]. The study referred to here is ‘Workplace Disability: Whose Wellbeing Does It Affect?’, published by the Institute for the Study of Labour, Bonn, and available at http://ftp.iza.org/dp10102.pdf.