A journey of learning and improvement

When it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion, it is important for everyone to broaden their awareness, knowledge, understanding and education around the subject – whether you are an individual, employer, or recruiter. Alexis Curtis-Harris explains

The path to true diversity and inclusion (D&I) is a continuous journey of learning and improvement. The past two years have been a wake up call for many organisations and the years ahead must be about meaningful action.

While the importance of D&I is not a new concept, it’s safe to say that the last couple of years have largely influenced our awareness in this space – I myself have been appointed head of equality, diversity and inclusion at Penna during this time as the importance not just within society has increased, but within our workplaces too. And local government is no different.

I get asked all the time ‘why is there now such a focus on D&I?’ when the reality is that people have always had different lived experiences and faced different challenges. For me, to rationalise the rapid acceleration of awareness in this space, I think about the stresses on society and heightened levels of emotions we have recently endured. While acknowledging that everyone’s experience of the pandemic will have been different, society’s reflection on D&I has been heightened and this has had a massive influence on people finding their voices, and the voices for change becoming louder.

Recent times have been difficult for everyone. I’ve heard the word ‘unprecedented’ used more times than I ever had before in my life. There has been challenge and change, and in some cases, life will never be the same. But from a D&I perspective, the acknowledgement and awareness of many causes has shone a light on pre-existing inequalities across the world, as well as unearthing new ones.

Whether we like it or not, we are on this journey towards inclusion together. There is no single starting place, but there must be continuous, consistent, and authentic progression that drives us towards cultural competence. Once D&I becomes a point of compliance instead of culture, and resorts to a box to be ticked, we end up with a focus on avoidance, rather than a celebration of difference. Aside from this avoidance leading to a culture of fear, it isn’t inclusive, and it isn’t authentic.

Genuine inclusion requires everyone to broaden their awareness, knowledge, understanding and education around the subject. We need cultures that are safe, and open to both giving and receiving honest feedback without fear or judgement of criticism. We must meet people where they are on their journey and then support them in progressing forward.

It fills me with joy that more conversations are now had in this space that are leading to tangible action and change. People want to learn, see, hear, and understand more – and this has certainly translated into the workplace. D&I is at the forefront and it’s fantastic to see the impact this is having around awareness and equality. However, we can and must do more. The progressive journey towards having both diverse and inclusive workplaces within local government is arguably one of the most important.

The need to create safe spaces that encourage diversity of thought, innovation and support for all employees is pivotal in helping communities across the UK to thrive.

When recruiting, don’t seek people who ‘fit in’. Not only is this detrimental to creating inclusive workplaces, but it can result in an unhealthy workplace monoculture. Difference is the superpower of the human race, and our uniqueness should be celebrated – the emphasis that is often placed on ‘culture fit’ can inadvertently push people to lose their own identities. This in turn leads to a lack of belonging at work, so it’s better to think about ‘culture add’ instead.

While a silver bullet doesn’t exist, there are things that we can all do to support progression and change. First, we need to acknowledge where we are – not just as organisations, but where we are personally on our journeys. We must become self-aware and use this reflection to understand our own privileges and hold ourselves and others accountable.

We have to consistently educate ourselves and seek out experiences that are different to our own. The reliance on those from under-represented groups to be the spokespeople for their communities is exhausting. We all have the ability to educate ourselves, so be curious, seek out learning opportunities, and build cultural intelligence. 

When developing your D&I strategies, it’s crucial to listen. Listen to colleagues and employees and use this to identify your areas of challenge, and the things that underrepresented groups value the most. There can often be a gap between implementation and meaningful impact, so by continuously listening you can ensure your strategies are authentic and representative of where you are and where you want to be. Finally, while it’s great to have conversations, we also need action. Without action, and I would go so far as to say measurable and accountable action, we will never move forward on the journey. What goals is your organisation setting in this space?

Successful progress on D&I will take time, patience, and dedication. But as individuals, employers, and recruiters, we have an undeniable responsibility to make positive change. n

Alexis Curtis Harris is head of ED&I – attraction and communications, at Penna

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