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Building the ED&I dream - Anastassia Parsons

Posted on 13 June 2022

Anastassia Parsons, Equality, Diversion and Inclusion Lead at bpha, writes our first HCP blog, covering an area that’s relevant not only within housing, but in any organisation. As more bring in dedicated Equality, Diversity and Inclusion professionals, she outlines why that decision is one of the first steps towards change, and not simply a tick in the ED&I ‘box’.

How do you get an organisation to be inclusive and deliver on its social purpose? There is no silver bullet but here are a few pointers drawn out from practice.

The Foundations​

Everybody has their personal interpretation of diversity and inclusion, and often individual understanding will be based on either personal experience, previous training, or from comments on social media. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) are often associated with ‘political correctness’ and ‘positive discrimination’, which allude to giving a preferential treatment to minority groups at the expense of the majority. If people feel that they are outside the target groups, they are highly likely to be sceptical, or even negative, about any ED&I initiatives because these will be deemed as unfair. On the other hand, people do not want to be associated with target groups and seen as the token member of the team. Unsurprisingly, a push for diversity and representation can be seen as compromising the quality and a non-merit-based treatment. Clearly, this will breed apathy at best, and resentment at worst.

Additionally, it is human nature to be drawn to sameness and people who are like us because we do not need to explain cultural references, adapt our approach or learn. Legitimate is the worry to say the wrong thing and be accused of cultural insensitivity, or worse.  It is understandable when people shy away from anything that can be controversial and diversity related. Therefore, the positioning of the ED&I work as benefiting everyone is crucial for breaking the notion of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and getting a wider buy-in. By establishing a shared understanding of diversity and inclusion as a collective benefit and a learning opportunity for all would be a sound base for building a common purpose. If people are convinced that the pie will be bigger for everyone as a result, rather than getting a smaller piece than other groups, then they are more likely to embrace ED&I.

The scaffold

Diversity in our community and workplace is widely available, however, to benefit from it, businesses need to be inclusive too. In other words, to harness the benefits of a diverse range of experiences, perspectives and cultures, we need an inclusive environment for all. In practice this means two things:

  • making adjustments to our practice to support different needs and to facilitate equal access (for example, utilising the talents of disabled people through more accessible premises, ways of communication and flexible workplace practices), and
  • removing barriers in our processes and systems to ensure that there are no opportunities for biased decisions (for example, in recruitment, allocation of resources for people development, promotion, pay and reward, performance management, and procurement).

Unfortunately, this does not happen organically and accidently. It requires change – in what we do and say, and how our managers lead, and above all, what approach we take to ED&I. We may take the compliance route and focus predominantly on policies and initiatives ranging from diversity training to equality impact assessments. We could take the marketing route and engage with awareness raising events, kitemarks and campaigns.  The compliance and the PR routes have their merits but on their own they do not bring a lasting change because ED&I is approached as an add-on and a ‘nice-to-have’, which is done to people top-down.  

A third option is the business strategy approach, where ED&I is seen as a critical factor for the success of the business. That requires embedding inclusion in systems, processes and decision-making, inclusive leadership, transparency, and individual accountability.  In order to do the right thing, people need practical tools and thus diversity and inclusion become part of business-as-usual and an everyday consideration.

The architect

The role of the ED&I Lead is often misunderstood. First of all, in different organisations the ED&I lead may have a different title and sit in a different department, and this to a degree may determine their area of influence and impact. For instance, if they are in HR, they would be seen as part of the people function; if they are in the marketing department, then - seen as part of the communication function. Increasingly, the ED&I role is an entity on its own that reports directly to the Chief Executive and as such it plays a significant part in the wider decision-making in the organisation.

A second misconception for the role is that ED&I professionals ‘do’ the ED&I for the organisation, which clearly is an impossible demand. We have (slightly) moved away from conversations with senior leaders asking questions such as ‘what are we doing about ED&I?’ and expecting an answer from the ‘ED&I function’ so that the leaders can tick the ED&I box as successfully delivered.  

A further mistake is to see the ED&I Lead as the internal auditor (or the ‘conscience’ of the organisation), there to ensure compliance and to wave a finger if people do not behave in a prescribed way. Neither is the ED&I Lead predominantly focused on organising and delivering diversity initiatives and events. For some reason, the ED&I Lead tends to get funnelled all the information with any remote connection to diversity and inclusion, as if these issues concern only one person in the organisation.

Unlike, for instance, finance, marketing, HR or IT, ED&I is not a function or a department; it is a lens that it is applied to the organisation’s processes and culture to ensure that these are equitable and inclusive. The ED&I Lead is instrumental in designing a framework that will translate inclusion into visibility and action and empower everybody to be creative in how they apply this framework to their own area of work. The ED&I Lead is an internal consultant who supports leaders and teams to achieve their business goals by utilising the benefits of diversity. ED&I Lead is a key partner that helps the organisation deliver its core purpose.  Embedding inclusion in what we do is a change process, and the ED&I Lead is the designer for this change to happen.

Building blocks

Developing an ‘ED&I team’ is a good starting point. A core group of leaders - people with authority and cultural influencers - need to come on board and commit to being the driving force for a strategy. On the one hand, the purpose of this group is to determine the direction, drive the action and evaluate the distance travelled; and on the other, to inspire and influence peers and colleagues.

Equally important is the role of diversity and inclusion supporters – colleagues who have an interest and passion, can contribute ideas and experiences, and be the collective voice for practice improvement. This energy and enthusiasm can be channelled through colleague networks and groups.

Prepare the ground by starting the education process. Create opportunities that give people an insight into experiences which we may not see if we are not directly affected in our daily lives and get people to feel what it is like to be excluded because of your identity or personal circumstances. And more importantly, give colleagues practical tips on how to be more inclusive in actions and words with colleagues and customers. Some examples are structured conversations in all-staff webinars ‘Let’s talk about ….’ and language guides ‘Language Matters’. I have recently arranged a webinar for colleagues about the trans and non-binary experience, hosted by Global Butterflies, to bring awareness of trans and non-binary inclusion. This was followed by a webinar on autism with Dean Beadle, an autistic speaker, and Tom Cliffe, from TRACK, a consultancy supporting autistic people to access employment. The webinars include a Q&A session, ensuring that anything not already covered could be asked – and it was!

Housing is naturally a people-centric sector. We play a role in the lives of thousands of people from all walks of life: different nationalities, cultures, challenges, skills, needs – the list is long. How we treat our customers can have a big impact on them. The understanding and resulting treatment of others needs to come from within an organisation for a consistent, effective approach. And this needs to start at our own door.