When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we may be told that the work is already done. After all, we have laws against discrimination, so everyone is receiving an equal chance. On the surface, this may seem to be the case.
If businesses are legally not allowed to refuse someone a job on the basis of the seven protected characteristics, then surely everyone has an equal opportunity to be employed at that business?
What is a barrier?
However, putting aside any discussion of avoidance of these types of laws (which is a worthwhile discussion but not one for this article), this attitude disregards the hidden barriers that can exist in recruitment and employment policies.
For the simplest of examples, consider a business which can take a limited number of work experience placements per year in their engineering division. It is common for these placements to go to the children of existing employees of the business, as they are most likely to hear about the opportunity and to be able to access it as they have a parent in the business.
However, this means that the demographic of the work experience cohort will be very close to that of the existing department and that young people with no current connections in the engineering industry are excluded from the opportunity.
Why do barriers matter?
These types of exclusions can seem small or insignificant, but over the course of a career they can add up. Rules or customs which can seem neutral can, in fact, have consequences for some communities that effectively exclude them from participating.
For example, a rule that everyone starts work at 8 am can seem like an equitable arrangement as everyone is being treated the same. However, for a single mother who cannot get their child into childcare and reach the site by 8 am, this rule means they are unable to work for this company, no matter how much they may want to, or how good they would be at the job.
It’s not just explicit rules either. A team that focuses their celebrations or team-building events around drinking alcohol is valuing a certain way of living that casts as outsiders those who don’t drink alcohol (for example, believers in a number of religions including Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism, as well as many people who choose not to for health reasons).
By simply choosing a different activity, a team can become instantly more inclusive and welcoming to a more diverse range of people.
For businesses that want to improve their approach to diversity, this kind of thinking is vital. As a nation, we generally spend at least a third of each day at work, and if this is an uncomfortable experience, it is unlikely that we will thrive and reach our potential. While invisible barriers exist, inequality will persist.
Questions or comments? As always, you can contact Helen Addis on firstname.lastname@example.org
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