/ 19 October 2022

Culture of authenticity needed to achieve diverse workplaces

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'Rainbow Nation'

South Africa – the “Rainbow Nation”. That is the ideal that this country, in its new age, has been built on. And it’s true. South Africa is a melting pot of diverse cultures, races, ethnicities, religions, languages and backgrounds. And yet, this is still not reflected in the workplace, particularly in positions of leadership.

Diversity and inclusion continue to be top of mind for South African organisations as the country works to redress historic inequality, but progress remains slow. According to a Deloitte report, out of 26 255 researched South African companies, only 11% of top management was black African, compared to 62% white. Meanwhile, only 19.1% of directors and 29.5% of executive managers of Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed companies were women. 

However, while significant work still needs to be done in improving the diversity at the top of organisations in the country, we need to shift from an approach to diversity that focuses on numbers to one that prioritises a culture and environment where people feel free to be their authentic selves, are treated fairly and feel they can be open about any challenges they face within the workplace. It’s simple: when people feel comfortable being their authentic selves in the workplace, they are more likely to want to work there.

Developing a culture of authenticity is crucial, and we can do this only through a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

So, what should diversity look like in modern-day corporate South Africa?

Well, because of our history, we know what it shouldn’t look like. Every group across the country has experienced some form of bias or experienced exclusion in the workplace due to instances of racism, sexism or any other form of discrimination as a result of the discriminatory laws that were previously in place. 

It’s important to look back and learn from our history to ensure that companies or corporations are not perpetuating those same harmful actions or stereotypes in the workplace.

When we speak about diversity, we need to look at creating a workplace that not only reflects the demographics of the country but also where different perspectives and ideas are shared. 

And to create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their own thoughts and ideas, we need to ensure that everyone is treated equitably and that everyone feels like they belong there. We simply cannot speak about diversity and inclusion without speaking about equity and belonging. 

This is key to building an environment wherein creativity and innovation can thrive. If you have a workforce that doesn’t feel like they belong, don’t feel like they’re aligned with the business’ vision or have any say and feel like they’re working in a hostile environment, an organisation will find it difficult to retain talent and build a profitable business.

How do we ensure an equitable environment where people feel like they belong?

The cornerstone of any authentically diverse and inclusive workplace is communication. As an organisation, you need to create an environment that is open to having difficult conversations around the challenges to diversity and inclusion that employees deal with in the workplace and the actions that need to be taken to address these challenges.

We also need to change perceptions about what the work environment should be or look like. It’s a common idea that when you come to work, you’re there to work so you need to leave all your other baggage at the door. But this is an impossible ask for employees as you cannot, and should not, cut out or hide inherent parts of who you are when you walk into the office.

It is important that leaders are conscious of the lived experiences of the different people working within an organisation, as well as their own conscious or unconscious biases. It’s easy to say that you want to be a diverse or inclusive company, but it’s not an easy task to achieve. 

It can be difficult, as leaders and managers within an organisation, to acknowledge that you yourself carry certain privileges and biases, but it’s important that those at the top are doing the work to dismantle barriers to an authentically diverse and inclusive workplace as well.

An effortless way to ensure that any policies, programmes, or workshops related to diversity and inclusion are fair and effective is to employ a third party to examine and oversee their implementation. 

One of the biggest reasons that people don’t often participate in difficult discussions or speak up about issues related to diversity and inclusion challenges is that they don’t feel it will be handled with the required sensitivity or taken seriously and that doing so will affect their career opportunities and growth potential. 

Often this aspect of the business is usually managed by someone within the business who may be seen as prioritising the business’ interests rather than those of their employees.

Creating a truly diverse work environment can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. We should not be discouraged by the challenges we face as a business in trying to ensure we’re facilitating a diverse and inclusive workplace that embraces the multiple identities within an organisation. 

Fostering a culture of genuine inclusivity reaps significant rewards for any organisation willing to put in the work to make it a reality, both for the business and for the people that the business employs. As Deloitte notes, “Diversity and inclusion are good for business. The most diverse and inclusive companies are six times more likely to innovate, six times more likely to anticipate change, and twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets.”

Kagiso Mahlangu is a partner and director of the Sandton-based full-service commercial law firm CMS.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.