What makes us different, makes our organisations stronger, by Adaku Okafor




Adaku Okafor

…Value of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the workplace

Did you know that Nigeria is one of the most diverse countries in the world? Nigeria is made up of over 180 million people from distinct ethnic groups with unique historical experiences, more than 250 languages, and different ways of life. Despite this, in a global diversity and inclusion survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Nigeria ranked 45th out of 47 countries on the global diversity readiness index. Nigeria’s low survey score reflects the nation’s challenges in managing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) despite its abundance of diversity. This, coupled with evidently weak or non-existing institutional inclusive plans makes DEI an important topic in every workplace.    

 

DEI is a ‘hot’ topic in the Western world right now, with research indicating that a diverse workforce acknowledges that people differ in a variety of visible and invisible ways, including age, gender, marital status, social status, disability, accent, sexual orientation, language, thinking style, religion, personality, ethnic origin, and culture. These differences result in more informed decision-making, better business results, and more diverse, equitable and inclusive organisations. However, what does diversity, equity & inclusion mean for Nigerian businesses and why should it be taken seriously?

Before we go into details, it is important to define what we mean by the terms diversity, equity and inclusion. Diversity refers to “the collective mixture of differences and similarities that includes for example, individual and organisational characteristics, values, beliefs, experiences, backgrounds, preferences and behaviours” (SHRM), equity is “the act of ensuring that processes and programs are impartial, fair, and provide the best possible outcomes for all individuals” (BuiltIn), while inclusion “helps to ensure that employees from diverse backgrounds are able to contribute, remain with the company and flourish” (SHRM). Together, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is vital to creating and maintaining a successful and forward-thinking workplace; one that is built on the principle that all people can thrive both personally and professionally.

Current State of Play in Nigeria     

In Nigeria, workplace diversity largely implies the following organisational practices: job opportunities with no age limitations, absence of gender discrimination during recruitments, management teams and boards with reasonable female representation, recruitment of individuals with diverse social and life experiences , recruitment of people with a disability, installation of required amenities in offices, equal employment opportunities for graduates of universities, technical colleges or polytechnics, having an older workforce with retirement based on declining productivity and a desire to retire, rather than age, and broad ethnic and religious representation within all employment categories.

A multi-ethnic country cannot make progress unless there is an intentional effort to embrace fairness, equity and justice, and ensures equal access to opportunities for underrepresented groups. There is a compelling business case for DEI to be embedded into organisational strategies in Nigeria. This will mean different things to different businesses, and work needs to begin where there is the greatest need or where the greatest impact can be seen.

For starters, having age restrictions attached to many entry-level job opportunities should be reviewed. Some graduates have to work and save money to pay for their education, leading to late entry and late exit from the university. There is still discrimination present for women with technical qualifications in male-dominated fields. Largely, women also remain under-represented in management positions and senior positions. It is also evident that ethnic and religious biases exist, with many being passed over for jobs and career development opportunities due to having different religious beliefs or not looking like the rest of the organisation. Additionally, it is often seen that older workers legally change their birth year in order to delay retirement. Generally, this is due to the fear of boredom and/or loss of vital income upon retirement.

So, why should you care about building a workforce that is diverse and an organisation that values inclusivity?

Firstly, former President Goodluck Jonathan stated that “I share the sentiments of many political commentators that at the crux of our challenge of national transformation is the problem of our political and governance structures and the inability to harness our diversity towards shared prosperity.” But for organisations, what does this mean? DEI must be addressed internally. Generally, the management of DEI is in its infancy in Nigeria, as the emphasis on managing differences has been solely focused on legal and moral factors, an approach known as the discrimination-and-fairness approach. As a business you can ask yourself two questions to gauge a good baseline as to where you stand as an organisation: Is this a business where everyone can perform, and does our organisation have a culture where people can reach their full potential? Once we address those questions, you can then build on how you plan to have greater focus on DEI. Here are just a few of the proven advantages of why valuing diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace is beneficial to businesses in Nigeria:

1) High level of Productivity: When organisations value the uniqueness of its workers by means of offering them proper compensation, health care and tailored career advancement; it enables those workers to have a sense of belonging to the company irrespective of their differences. This can lead to a workforce that is loyal and hardworking which helps to increase the company’s productivity and profit.

2) Increased innovation, ideas and teamwork: A single person taking on multiple tasks cannot perform at the same pace as a team could; so, imagine what a team of unique individuals could do! Each team member bringing different ideas and offering a unique perspective (especially during problem solving) can effectively arrive at the best solution at the shortest possible time.

3) Learning and growth: Diversity in the workplace creates an opportunity for employee’s personal growth. When workers are being exposed to new cultures, ideas and perspectives, it can help each person to gain greater emotional and cultural intelligence, reach new heights intellectually, and have a clearer insight to their place in the culturally diverse world we live in.

4) Effective Communication: Workplace diversity can immensely strengthen a company’s relationship with some specific group of customers/clients, by making communication more authentic. Think about a customer service personnel or representative and consider whether they can be paired up with customers they can specifically relate to and connect with. This can make the customer feel at home with the representative and thus connected with the company.

5) Diverse Experience: Employees that come from a diverse background bring a unique set of perceptions and experiences to the table, especially during team or group tasks. Pooling the differing skills and knowledge of culturally diverse employees together can immensely benefit the company by strengthening the responsiveness and productivity of the team to adapt to changing conditions.

In short, Diversity not only is the right thing to do from an ethical point of view, but it has been proven to affect the bottom line – in a positive way, and if not considered legal ramifications can ensue.

 The cost of not valuing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

If you choose to ignore this ever-growing need for Diversity in the workplace, it costs time, money, and efficiency; leads to unhealthy tensions; loss of productivity because of increased conflict; inability to attract and retain talented people; and leads to complaints and legal actions, all of which can result in lost investments.

Let’s talk about the legal ramifications. In 1999, an important step was made to deal with lack of Diversity and Equity issues in Nigeria, with a constitutional clause prohibiting discrimination based on community, ethnicity, place of origin, gender, religion, and political opinion. In recent years, attempts have been made to introduce legislations that specifically address different dimensions of diversity: age, gender, HIV/AIDS status, disability, and sexual orientation. This must be kept in mind when looking at your own organisation’s diversity, equity and inclusion strategy and goals.

These litigations around discrimination and/or lack of diversity practices, come at a cost. Texaco, a global oil provider, faced such charges during a Race Discrimination case in the 1990’s. The lawsuit was a class action, race discrimination suit brought on behalf of salaried black employees. As the lawsuit gathered traction and got media traction, the value of Texaco’s stock fell abruptly, and employee morale was destroyed company wide. Texaco’s management was facing a critical choice: 1. to defend the lawsuit and try to rebut the discrimination charges or 2. to settle the lawsuit and use the litigation crisis as an opportunity to transform Texaco’s corporate culture to foster and promote diversity. Texaco agreed to pay substantial damages and assume responsibility for implementing systemic change. As part of the Settlement Agreement, an independent task force of outsiders was established with the authority to design and oversee the implementation of the change over a five-year period. In addition, the task force was given the authority to determine human resources policy for Texaco relating to fairness and diversity issues covered by the Settlement Agreement.

This is not a standalone or one-off case; numerous global organisations have faced litigation based on discriminatory practices. From Racial Slurs and Harassment at General Electric to Sexual Harassment at BNP Paribas, to Dyslexia Discrimination at Starbucks, and Amazon being sued for Racial and Gender Discrimination – there are a plethora of examples out there of when companies have been held to account.

It is time to move forward

Within the private sector in Nigeria, many businesses follow the concept of simply avoiding the potentially contentious and emotive issues relating to DEI by adopting an informal approach to diversity management. However, some notable exceptions to this are a few mainly Western multinational corporations (mainly in the oil and gas sector), who are embracing the nation’s Diversity and harnessing its power.  For example, Chevron has a clearly articulated diversity strategy and inclusion focused structure, including engaging full-time diversity professionals to provide strategic direction and co-ordination for their DEI initiatives and goals. Companies like Chevron have generally been influenced by their parent companies to implement diversity initiatives, adopting operational best practices from other countries that are further advanced in the DEI agenda. This presents a serious challenge to the Nigerian divisions, as they must define a locally relevant diversity plan. In order to overcome this, some organisations are prioritising diversity issues that are common in both Nigeria and their home country e.g., cultural and gender diversity.

Additionally, there is a stronghold of groupthink in Nigeria – that is, the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group, which often results in unchallenged, poor-quality decision-making and things being done the way they always have been done. Those who hold views that are different or directly oppose those of the ‘in-group’ are often excluded, marginalised, and even discriminated against. These underrepresented groups have been taught to accept their fate and be grateful for their oppression. Therefore, now is the time to take DEI from paper to practice, and to leverage the power of the vast diversity Nigeria offers to make your business operate at a higher level.

In conclusion

Many categories of workers remain voiceless in Nigerian organisations, due to biases associated with age, hierarchy, gender, social background, disability, and educational qualifications. Nigeria is characterised by high levels of diversity, low levels of inclusion, and historically weak but evolving institutional arrangements; and therefore, change is desirable and inevitable. You must take a pragmatic approach that requires a short- and long-term strategy, taking incremental steps toward transformational and systemic change. This should focus on the need to balance competing logics as well as the interests of marginalised and disadvantaged groups within your organisation. Given the increasingly diverse talent market within Nigeria, organisations that have a focus on attracting, retaining, and fully engaging the skills of a diverse workforce will gain a competitive advantage. While this may require substantial investments and commitment of organisational resources, there are no sustainable alternatives if you want to truly be the best organisation within your field.

Adaku Okafor contributed this piece from Dublin, Ireland where she is the CEO of PhoenixRize. Email: [email protected]

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