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Why I don’t believe in the Robin Hood style of Diversity!

By Asif Sadiq MBE – Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at The Telegraph

We all remember the story of Robin Hood, right? Generations have grown up with a heroic idea of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Robin Hood’s hawk-eyed archery and fierce swordplay makes him popular, and his social conscience endearing. His modus operandi was taking from the rich and giving to the poor and somehow, we loved this as it seemed like a win for the people who needed it the most.

Now sometimes D&I can be viewed in the same way. There is a strong-held believe amongst many, and usually from the majority within a business, that D&I takes from them and gives to others. The amount of times I have heard that phrase “I can’t get promoted here as it’s all about the Women and BME’s” is unbelievable – even when the data shows that this is clearly not the case. If it were, surely we would have women and BME leaders in all the boardrooms and at the top of companies?

However, we must explore where this belief comes from and unfortunately some of it is a result of D&I efforts that ironically have created divides or created a sense that D&I takes something away from one group for the purposes of pleasing another. Let me give some examples, do you remember when staff at a Government department had been urged to avoid writing the words “Merry Christmas” in seasonal email greetings to avoid upsetting anyone or when some businesses considered banning drinking as it was felt that it created an exclusive culture?

All these things were done with the view that it supports creating an inclusive culture when, in reality, it did exactly the opposite and created bigger divides. What’s more interesting in the case of the Christmas cards, is the fact that an assumption was made that it would offend certain groups if the words “Merry Christmas” were used, but no one actually asked the very groups that it supposedly offended.

Similarly, with the banning of drinking, no one had an issue with the drinking, it was more around the fact that those that didn’t drink felt excluded as most after-work socials centre around drinking. Now, what’s the solution? Well, if we take the drinking example, why can’t team get-togethers be arranged somewhere where people who want to drink can drink, the ones who don’t can maybe eat, or be involved in other activities. It’s so easily done! I recently went to a place in the City of London that had mini golf, drinks and food! a winner for everyone!

Another example of something which is seen as taking away from one group to give to another is specific programmes aimed at specific diversity categories. We all know of those Women’s leadership programmes or the BME development programmes that we end up running. Now these programmes in themselves are not bad and of course I see the need for them, however other groups who are not part of the programmes can feel like they are missing out on something or are not gaining something because of these programmes. Maybe this is why we have the challenge of finding male advocates to help promote programmes like these?

This is a real issue, not only for the those that feel they are missing out but for the very people we want to support, who end up having to justify why they get a dedicated programme for them. So what’s the solution? Well we need to ensure if we have these programmes then we fill the gaps. We need to make it clear why we have these programmes, what they are and what we want to achieve, not only to the individuals on the programmes but our wider workforce to ensure everyone understands their purpose. I would also personally have them sit next to other programmes that organisations run, so others can see that although they are not on these programmes, they have options of other programmes that are open to them.

Another example is some of the public targets we set ourselves around gender and ethnicity and how we explain them. Targets in themselves are not bad and support us in setting goals. What’s wrong is when we don’t communicate why we have these targets and what we are trying to achieve, to our wider workforce and sometimes in our efforts around D&I forget to mention the others. 

Let’s say we set external targets around recruitment of women into executive positions of 50% year on year and 35% BAME (I know very ambitious) and now as D&I experts and people who belong to those groups, we all know the challenges in achieving these. However, amongst those that are not women or BME this creates a sense that”you have to be a woman or BME to get into an executive position”. 

This mentality is very dangerous and immediately eradicates the thinking that someone has reached their senior position because of their capabilities and worth, replacing it with “They’re only there because their a woman” or “He/She only got that position because their black.” This is obviously based on perception right as we all know it is not true. So to balance it and create a sense of equality, why don’t we publish how many men we recruited separately? Surely this will help them to see that the system and stats are in their favour and disproportionately skewed in favour of men of a certain heritage.

Positive action is another area that comes up quite often, whereby these initiatives are seen as creating a disadvantage for some in favour of others. We know this is far from the truth and of course I fully support and encourage efforts around positive action, however having been on the receiving end of positive action and then seeing the reaction of others, I wished I was never part of any positive action programme in the first place, as everyone thought I only got the opportunity I had because of the colour of my skin and not because I was good enough.

My view is and always has been, that positive action initiatives should be to support people getting into the system whether that be the recruitment process or promotion process. We should set targets like 50% of our executive promotion process entries will be women, not 50% of our new executives will be women. Don’t get me wrong, we need the later targets/ ambitions as well, however it is important that they are aspirations rather than a positive action outcome. Positive action targets should be set around “entry into a process” and not at the outcome stage. As I always say: Bring us to the start line and we can run the race ourselves! (given a fair and equal opportunity)

We must always appreciate diversity in its broadest sense and include all people in the D & I conversations, as every single person is different- even if they are from the majority within an organisation. We must not exclude anyone or let anyone feel that diversity has nothing to do with them or feel that because of diversity they are disadvantaged. That’s not the point of belonging and inclusivity. We all know how it feel to be disadvantaged so let’s not let anyone else feel that way and work on creating a culture that values all difference and allows people to thrive and succeed while building hearts and minds.

Written by Asif Sadiq MBE and Sana Butt

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