It’s easy to fall into the trap of only surrounding yourself with like-minded people in the name of meritocracy and cohesion. The illusory pursuit of superiority through exclusion somehow survives despite the knowledge that all homogeneity can be infinitely subdivided. Even selected initiates find ways to discriminate between them based on gender, skin tone, beard, beliefs, education, accent, sexuality, physical and mental attributes, etc.
Aversion to diversity has a cost. It blocks the much-needed variety and vitality of ideas, experiences, and innovations that are essential to the health of the organization. Profits require organizations to involve all kinds of people and tap into the ingenuity and energy of people of different qualities and backgrounds.
Increasingly, business leaders recognize the business case for inclusion and diversity. Although companies must comply with laws to accommodate women and people with physical disabilities, many companies have gone further and tied this inclusion and diversity to their public image.
A combination of legislative actions and business initiatives are changing mindsets and enabling a more inclusive and diverse workplace. Reserving board seats for women has been a game-changer for gender sensitivity in business. Many companies have changed their hiring and promotion processes to fill their staff and leadership pipeline with more women.
However, corporate inclusion and diversity is not limited to gender representation. As the economy becomes more urban and global, the spectrum of inclusion and diversity is widening. Today there is a growing sensitivity to discrimination and exclusion based on socio-economic, physical, mental, gender, generational and ideological differences.
Physically and mentally different people are another resource that companies tend to ignore despite the law requiring them to give them a fair chance. Most companies wouldn’t hire Professor Stephen Hawking if they were only interested in his mobility issues. Beethovan would be considered unfit for the job due to his hearing loss. Mathematician John Nash, the subject of the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’, would be considered too troublesome to hire because of his schizophrenia.
Yet a change in attitude towards disability is taking place beyond simply adopting more polite terms to refer to people with disabilities. Some companies hire such people because they seek to harness their intellectual abilities and unique perspective on innovation. Many of these companies attach companions to help “specially able” employees adjust to their jobs and roles.
The acceptance of sexual diversity is a new frontier for inclusion. While companies tend to enforce “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies when it comes to sexual behavior outside of the workplace, there is a growing sensitivity towards LGBT employees. They are accepted and not simply tolerated. Accepting divergent sexuality as normal is key to allaying these employees’ anxieties and making the most of them.
While caste has been the historical center of inclusion in the country, private enterprise has resisted political attempts to embed these considerations into the corporate workforce. Companies position themselves as meritocracies and profess caste neutrality. Still, some surnames are more common in corporate hierarchies than others. Companies must find ways to avoid a socially unbalanced composition of the workforce and management.
Generational diversity is still just a speck on the radar of most Indian businesses, but the issue is starting to gain attention as young adults invade the business landscape. New jobs are created mainly in startups, which are reserved for young people, and jobs in mature companies are decreasing. Older workers find themselves slipping down the pecking order, if not thrown out altogether. Businesses must balance their need for tech-savvy young people with the social need to profitably employ the older generation, who offer maturity and experience. While generational diversity makes a strong business case, companies need to formalize policies on age biases and practices.
The diversity of the generations joins the cognitive diversity. Companies need to accommodate the diversity of thinking and problem-solving approaches among their employees. Normalizing the mindset can be convenient, but it can be counterproductive. Additionally, companies need to engage people with non-business expertise to improve business strategies and behaviors. For example, people with a background in the pure sciences and humanities are needed to enrich the company’s perspective and improve long-term competitiveness.
The notion of inclusion and diversity itself requires more inclusion and diversity. Being open to all kinds of influences is the key to having a bigger playing field and a greater competitive advantage.
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