Diversity and inclusion in the workplace – practising what you preach

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace is easy to talk about but, as I was recently reminded on my trip to Brazil, can be hard to put into practise.

I have over 30 years’ experience helping create more inclusive, diverse and healthy workplace cultures. Diversity and inclusion are things that I care deeply about, that I advocate for and constantly work towards. I am hyper-conscious of these things. And yet on my recent and marvellous trip to Brazil, I was guilty of making quick value judgements that were directly opposed to my beliefs.

Fear of the unknown leads to value judgements

As a foreigner, in a foreign land where I didn’t speak any of the language and didn’t understand the culture, I was totally outside of my usual comfort zone.

Simple things that I can instinctively do at home, like hail a taxi, buy a coffee or even cross the street, were suddenly bewilderingly complex and seemingly dangerous. Because I didn’t understand the traffic flows, or the social rules that govern the ordering of food or how to greet others –one kiss, two kisses, no kisses – I felt isolated, idiotic and a lost a little confidence.

And because of that, I jumped to value judgements – ‘Oh my gosh people here are crazy drivers’, ‘there are no road rules’, ‘there is chaos everywhere’. My brain wanted to say, ‘this is wrong’ and therefore ‘home is right’.

It was an important shock to my system when I realised thatI was making biased value judgements. I was able to recognise that my need to judge was coming from a place of discomfort and overwhelm. By realising that, I was able to suspend judgement and let the experience of Brazil wash over me. I stopped comparing and simply embraced the experience.

Diversity in the workplace and the shock of the new

Why am I telling you this? Because it reminded me of what I see so often happening in workplaces when something ‘new’ or ‘unknown’ is encountered. Workplaces can quickly become homogenous. They have their own context, own social rules. We are usually not really aware of what our workplace culture is and what the unwritten rules are that people are expected to follow.

When a new person enters that culture, they have to navigate the unknown. Mostly our on-boarding process helps but the challenge is greater for people who have English as a second language or who come from a different industry or culture to the one we have. They can experience this sense of culture shock and isolation. Dr Tom Vorghese, a renowned diversity and inclusion coach, recently blogged about how new employees can proactively transition into the workplace. He mentioned the need to:

1.    Identify cultural differences -what is similar and what is different?

2.    Be proactive in networking and identify people whose work is inspiring

3.    Be mindful of business etiquette – how do people dress, talk to each other etc

4.    Bring a purposeful mindset and show that you are ready to contribute

5.    Be brave and willing to contribute and share your observations.

This is great advice for any new employee, but it’s equally good advice for the workplace employees who are welcoming a new team member.

Being different makes the difference

And diversity in the workplace isn’t just about letting people in. It’s about being open to new perspectives, new ideas. Good workplaces have clear values that all employees share but is open to new ideas, welcoming of different perspectives and comfortable with having the status quo challenged. It’s only when we shift outside our comfort zone that we really give ourselves the opportunity to grow, learn and develop – and that’s what all businesses should strive for.

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