Question Time with Mentor John – Diversity at the workplace

Diversity at the workplace makes good business sense. Research shows that companies with a more diverse workforce perform better. Diverse teams typically are more innovative, and a range of different perspectives leads to more creative decision-making. What are the dangers of having a uniform group of employees? How can diverse teams work well together? What steps need to be taken to build a more inclusive workforce?

Mentor John answers your questions:

My business is a small tech consultancy, where employees are alike – males, in their 30s-40s, with similar education, backgrounds and hobbies. The business has done well over the past several years. Is workplace diversity necessary? If so, how should I start?

First define what you are looking for in your new recruits. Don’t base this on what is happening at the moment but on what your products / services are likely to be in five and ten year’s time. Time devoted to this will be well rewarded. Of course, things won’t turn out exactly as you forecast but every general will tell you that not to plan is a disaster.

From your plan, decide the characteristics of the people you are going to need to help you achieve it. Don’t repeat what you have, fresh blood makes for new ideas. Try to balance your workforce more. Women have a wonderful, practical way of thinking that supplements the often rather lineal, masculine thought pattern. When I appointed a woman managing director of one of my businesses, sales went up significantly. She had applied to the marketing a woman’s common sense where men were trying to win points and awards. Think of appointing someone handicapped, too. They have a very real experience of life you won’t find elsewhere. When building Cerebos Pacific, I employed people who had been in prison for bad behaviour. They worked hard to rehabilitate themselves and the reward was a new person.

Being in the creative sector, I made a conscious effort to hire a diverse workforce, so we can ensure a range of ideas, viewpoints and opinions. I have several strongly opinionated employees. This means that our brainstorming sessions often end in a clash of personalities. How do I manage this?

Since they are in the creative business, they probably understand that good selling is best done with words and pictures and not with sledgehammers. Tell them you want to see the best-selling side they can exhibit when they are making their points. Every communication – you can point out to them – is a seduction. That is achieved by wooing. Reward the person whose wooing is most successful, even if you don’t use their ideas. Show by example that there are no rights and wrongs only better ideas.

It sounds as though your corporate culture needs a brush up. Show that the great inventions in the world involved clashes, sometimes partnerships breakups, but that the majority of them were achieved by quiet reflection, not brutish behavior. Personal rudeness and bigotry are never acceptable and you should send anyone guilty of them out of the room or out of the company.
We learn by example. Show how great ideas come from thought, not thuggery.

Many people think external diversity is important, such as age, gender or race. But this doesn’t guarantee you have a workforce diversity in experience and skills, which I feel is more important. How do I know what type of diversity my company needs?

In this age of disruption, a good manager balances the needs of the business today with the likely needs tomorrow. Without a plan which includes the technological changes that are occurring and likely to occur you cannot hope to have the right sort of diversity.

But let’s face it, the labour market isn’t so generous that we get everything we want. My system of employing people was to get to know them informally, over a coffee and a meal. I asked their ideas about everything except the business I was in or the job I had in mind for them. How a person thinks demonstrates their attitude. And attitude is the foundation of a good employee. Experience is of limited – but sometimes important – value. It is always overrated by people hiring employees, especially the HR team. Experienced fools are still fools.

If I discovered that the potential employee had the right attitude, I hired him or her, often when there was no specific job for them to do. If that was the case, I took them round the business with me and let them choose what they wanted to do. The system worked marvellously,
Thirty years after the company was sold and I left, all my former managers who are still alive remember my birthday. Both they and I must have done something right.

I recently hired a person with disabilities. I’ve noticed that many of my employees have a bias against working with him (which I believe they are not even aware of). What can I do to build a more cohesive team?

Take time to explain to your employees that they could be the person with disabilities, physical or mental. Make it clear that anyone who shuns a disabled person runs the risk of being replaced by another disabled person. Be tough about this. You are having to fill in for years of appalling education and parenting. You can’t work miracles. This is a time when you must be assertive. Get them working on projects jointly with the disabled person. Instil a sense of responsibility. We have enough problems in life without adding discrimination to them.

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