The quest for equality is a noble one. But we’re going to go out on a controversial limb here, and suggest that when it is taken out of context, it can actually stand in the way of celebrating something equally important: diversity. So how are the scales balanced between treating people equally and valuing their differences? Ultimately, surely the two combine to pave the road to inclusion.

For employers and employees alike, what should ultimately boil down to common sense and decency (working alongside one another harmoniously and effectively, regardless of our similarities and differences), can feel like a massive minefield. Whether borne out of a moral obligation, a legal obligation, or both, the imperative to treat everyone equally can often be misinterpreted as the need to treat everyone the same, as if we are all peas in a pod. The fear of saying or doing something that could be misconstrued as discriminatory can result in glossing over some of the very differences that make a diverse team so brimming with potential. But that’s not necessarily the right path to embracing diversity. What happened to celebrating our differences?

We’re all different, every one of us. Within any given social circle, family or work unit, you’ll find all manner of ways in which each person differs from the next. It’s just that, in terms of what is deemed socially acceptable, some of these things are ‘OK’ to confront and discuss, and others less so. For every Marmite lover, you’ll meet a Marmite hater. No biggie. It’s the subject of many a jovial discussion, and in fact the very basis for the brand’s own advertising campaign. Love it or hate it – we’re all different, and that’s OK. Of course, and quite rightly, the same strength of view relating to religious differences, sexual orientation and countless other minority characteristics would be desperately inappropriate to air, either in our behaviour or our actions towards one another. Whatever our differences, and whatever our biases (conscious or unconscious – we all have them), there are norms that most balanced individuals living in the free world know how to conform to in the name of equal opportunity and equal rights. In fact, most of us don’t even have to give it any detailed thought – it is just part and parcel of being a fair minded and decent fellow citizen, colleague or friend. Common sense mixed with common decency. Of course, for those who fail to understand these principles, there are punitive consequences.

The fact is that rules (whether emanating from the company policy manual or the letter of the law) are created to cater for the lowest common denominator. They are written to safeguard against and cater for the most ignorant or careless amongst us. No employment lawyer worth their salt leaves any scope for doubt or room for creative interpretation when it comes to company policies and procedures. There is one set of rules, one employee handbook, and one policy manual. Every employee, regardless of their level, their common sense, their moral compass and their ability to interpret right from wrong, receives that copy. If it is doing its job, the employee policy manual clearly sets out the company’s position on discriminatory behaviour, and the associated consequences. That message is usually further reinforced in the training room at one or more points along the way.

All well and good, and, of course, an important aspect of the psychological contract between employer and employee. But, unless it is underpinned by the right culture in the workplace, it’s all a bit ‘vanilla’.

Of course, both of these approaches (having a policy and reinforcing it with regular training sessions) are essential. In the same way that breaking eggs is an essential part of making an omelette – but the job doesn’t end there. No policy manual and no training session will change a person, or an organisational culture overnight. It’s the starting point, not the solution.

Firstly, let’s consider, for example, the racist, the bigot or the homophobe. So deeply entrenched is their ignorance, and so firmly embedded are their views, that it will take a lot more than reading a policy manual (if they actually do) or sitting in the back row of a compulsory diversity training session to impact their behaviour and alter their attitude. At best they will stay on the right side of the law or the rules. They won’t overtly discriminate. But neither will they experience a sudden ‘light bulb moment’, resulting in them actively embracing diversity and inclusion back in the ‘real world’.

Now, let’s take the (hopefully) more commonplace example of folks like you and me; those among us who respect the value of a diverse community, and for whom discrimination could not be further from the mind. That policy manual, and those training sessions send one message, loud and clear. Tread carefully. Step out of line, even unintentionally, and the force of the law (or the HR Department) will rain all over you. Many training sessions cite case law examples designed specifically to illustrate just how wrong things can go in this regard. And, being as how folk like us have both a strong moral compass and a compulsion to follow the rules, the chances are we will walk away fearful that anything we say or do may be viewed as discriminatory, rather than empowered to act inclusively.

So, as employers, what is clear is the responsibility to do more. More than just create a policy and have every employee sign to say they’ve received it. More than just wheel everyone through the training room once in a while. More, in short, than just cover our backs. We need to teach people, by example (and through an on going culture of embracing diversity) how to celebrate our differences, rather than turn them into ‘the unmentionable’. Most importantly, how to do this appropriately, so that minority groups feel respected, valued and included, as opposed to being held aloft like some sort of ‘diversity trophy’. It’s about creating a tailored approach to diversity in the workplace – one that is finely balanced between focussing on equality and focussing on differences – and ensuring people are equipped and confident to apply these approaches in the right measure, at the appropriate time and with the right people.

To do this, we need to gather diversity data, but then use it constructively. That means finding out who we have in our business, what makes them unique, different, included, marginalised, engaged or disenchanted. We need to be able to analyse this data by gender, age, race, sexual orientation and so forth, in order to build a clear picture of not only what diversity looks like in our organisation, but how that diversity is experienced first hand. Finally, but probably most importantly, we need to find out how people in our organisation view our current approach to diversity and inclusion, and how, in their eyes, it could be changed for the better. Only by doing this can we truly understand when to adopt a diversity approach (focussing on the value of everyone’s differences) and when to focus on equality. Recent research (Apfelbaum, Reagans & Stephens, 2016) suggests that this is heavily determined by the scale of group representation: highlighting differences versus equality is more effective when minority group representation is moderate, but less effective when it is very low. They go on to conclude that ‘before organisations use a particular diversity approach, they should first consider which social groups they are targeting, and second, how social group’s numerical representation and corresponding concerns may influence the effectiveness of this approach’.

Two of the workplace issues about which we are most passionate at great{with}diversity are employee engagement and diversity & inclusion. Too often these are treated as mutually exclusive matters, but we don’t see it that way. We understand that everyone is different, and so we believe there is more to auditing your employee engagement levels than just finding out what ‘most people’ think. So if you’re looking for a more thorough insight into your employee engagement feedback (one which enables you to extract and analyse data in any number of ways – by gender, race, location, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity and so on) then you should contact us. Our assessments can help you to understand the context behind your employee engagement levels, including how diversity issues in your business could be better addressed in order to raise employee satisfaction, increase productivity and reduce unwanted staff turnover. Our website provides further information on our full range of products.

Communicating the ‘do’s and don’ts’ and regurgitating phrases from the Equality Act 2010 is one tiny part of creating diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The real difference comes with embracing the diversity of all your people, regardless of race, creed, colour, gender, viewpoints on Marmite and many other things besides. Equality is about ensuring that nobody receives less favourable treatment on the basis of their specific protected (minority) characteristic. Don’t make the mistake of assuming it means treating everyone the same, and never assume that you know how anyone wants to be treated. Instead, why not create a culture in which it is OK to explore diversity, and one that allows the whole business to thrive and prosper from everyone’s differences as well as remain observant of equality of opportunity. That’s diversity in practice and inclusion in action. Vive la différence!

Visit our website www.great{with} for more information about our products and services.