Recognising unintended consequences of workplace diversity

Written by
Dr Getinet Haile

30 Jun 2017

30 Jun 2017 • by Dr Getinet Haile

Diversity in the workplace has been growing for decades. Factors such as migration, globalisation and even increased longevity have all fuelled this trend, as has a raft of legislation and initiatives designed to encourage inclusion.

In many ways, the effect has been nothing less than transformative. Never before have our workforces so accurately reflected the composition of broader society. Yet a potentially awkward question, that often goes unasked, is whether this trajectory is widely welcomed.

Suppose, for example, that workers become less happy as their company becomes more diverse. Would this represent a failure on the part of the employees, the organisation, both – or something else? We would do well to consider such a worrying scenario, because the uncomfortable truth is that research suggests this is precisely the case.

Disability in the workplace

Let’s look at the issue through the prism of disability in the workplace. Research in this area is especially relevant, since the number of disabled employees is only likely to rise further in the years ahead as various budgetary pressures both drive up retirement thresholds and compel more people to move away from disability benefits and into work.

Historically, studies of disabled workers have tended to focus either on the disadvantages they suffer in the labour market or their comparative lack of earning power. Little attempt has been made to examine how their introduction to a workforce impacts on the wellbeing of their fellow employees – whether positively or negatively.

We recently set out to shed fresh light on this issue by drawing on the British Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS). This contains information representative of all UK businesses with five or more employees and is largely regarded as the most authoritative and comprehensive source of its kind.

Included in the WERS data are a number of measures of what we might loosely describe as “job satisfaction”. They include achievement, security, influence, pay and involvement in decision making. Cross-referencing these with statistics for disabled worker numbers reveals a significant relationship between workplace diversity and workforce wellbeing.

Specifically, overall job satisfaction declines as both the percentage of workers with disabilities and the number of disability-friendly policies and practices increase. Crucially, further analysis shows the decline is confined exclusively to workers who are not disabled and is found only in the private sector. These findings, needless to say, raise serious questions.

The dangers of complacency

It’s vital, of course, to place our study results in perspective. They don’t constitute a dramatic exposé of institutionalised discrimination. They don’t represent a damning indictment of diversity and inclusion initiatives. They don’t signal a need for some form of sweeping, knee-jerk, draconian response.

They do, though, remind us of the dangers of complacency. They highlight the importance and urgency of promoting a corporate culture that’s genuinely appropriate to the needs of a diverse group of employees. They amount to a jarring wake-up call for anyone who believes issues such as these have long since been addressed and should no longer be of concern.

Of course, the answer isn’t to shy away from the challenges that diversity in the workplace presents. That would simply be to deny the reality of the situation on every level. So where do we go from here?

In contemplating the way forward we should first give serious thought to the far-reaching repercussions of dissatisfaction in the workplace. In light of the accepted links between unhappiness, absenteeism and quitting, the potential cost implications could prove substantial. Workers themselves are unlikely to be alone in suffering the consequences. Employers and firms – and with them the economy in general – might also pay the price.

Beyond that, we have to acknowledge the need to build on the good work that has already been done by informing and designing even better workplace policies and practices. One answer may be more formal training for managers and co-workers to raise their awareness of the value of championing diversity and accommodating all employees.

Ultimately, the very least we can do is heed the warning and stay committed. We have to keep looking for new and more effective strategies. And we have to avoid the temptation to rest on our laurels, however impressive they might be.

We have to recognise, too, that the solutions won’t come easily. They never have, and it’s essential that we remember that. It’s when we lose sight of this truth that the cause of D&I flounders. Just as we would never countenance giving up in the face of a setback, we should never be so arrogant as to suppose the job is done in the face of apparent or imagined success.