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Diversity training in the workplace is nothing new.

Every office with a Human Resources (HR) department has a list of dos and don’ts. No one really pays attention to them, at least not until an audit or litigation demands it. And for a very long time, organisations could get away with paying lip service towards diversity. 

It wasn’t until the winds of social change turned into a tornado that diversity took centre stage. From what was once a neglected component of HR, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are now at the core of many forward-thinking businesses.

From hiring to promotion, and branding to onboarding, it has become increasingly trendy for companies to introduce a slew of DEI policies as a response to social unrest and inequalities.

Is DEI the answer to create a successful workplace, or is it nothing more than a veneer of change to make companies look more enlightened and progressive than they really are?

Why DEI matters

diverse teams workplace
Embracing DEI at the workplace can help organisations retain top talent and drive innovative outcomes / Image Credit: Salt Recruitment

While interconnected, diversity, equity, and inclusion are very different concepts. 

Diversity broadly refers to having different representations in the workplace in terms of race, gender, age et cetera. Meanwhile, equity requires firms to ensure that processes are fair and equitable to all individuals. As for inclusion, it is the art of making people feel heard, valued, and supported at work. 

So far, numerous research has shown that having a solid DEI strategy can help companies to outperform their peers and drive sustainable economic growth

For a start, implementing DEI policies creates an environment that empowers employees. It creates a safe space for them to speak up and reduces herd mentality in decision-making. 

Companies that bring together people from different backgrounds also encourage the flourishing of innovative and creative ideas

Furthermore, with talent a scarce resource, DEI is instrumental in promoting employee retention and engagement. When employees can show up at work as their true, authentic selves, they are more likely to realise their full potential, contribute their best and feel more fulfilled at work. 

Speaking to the Business Times, Mr Sim Gim Guan, executive director of the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) further reiterates why DEI should be taken seriously.

By managing DEI better, employers can strengthen workplace relations, collaboration, and innovation. Building on workplace fairness, employers can develop inclusive workplace policies and practices that will attract and retain the best talent.

– Sim Gim Guan, Executive Director at SNEF

DEI landscape in Singapore

raffle place office workers
Many Singaporeans believe in the value of DEI in the workforce, but such sentiments are not reflected in their workplace policies / Image Credit: Nikkei Asia

For a country that strives to be the hub of everything, and number one at anything, one would expect companies in Singapore to jump onto the DEI bandwagon. 

And yet, we are lagging dreadfully behind in a US$15 billion industry that promises higher productivity and revenue growth. 

According to a report by human capital firm Kincentric, seven in 10 Singapore-based employers have not introduced DEI policies. This is even though more than half of those surveyed believe in the positive impact of DEI on employee engagement and company culture. 

When probed, a lack of DEI data, managerial ineffectiveness and incompatible work culture are cited as reasons behind the absence of DEI strategies in most businesses. 

The dichotomy here is that while employers are aware they need to do better, many, especially larger firms, are bogged down by institutionalised practices preventing them from making positive changes. 

This is clearly hurting employees. In a poll by consulting firm Kantar, which ranked Singapore as the second-worst place globally for workplace diversity, one in four Singaporeans reported feeling bullied at work and unable to speak up. 

In another survey by Hays Recruitment, 61 per cent of respondents were adamant that their leaders were biased towards promoting people who “think, look or act like them”. 

Ageism has also been flagged as a concern, with one-third of respondents saying age was a factor that could lower their chances of being selected for a job. 

These statistics paint a depressing picture and makes one wonder, are employees in Singapore living under a façade of peace and harmony?

In the long run, a growing population of disenfranchised employees will impede the ability of organisations to attract and retain the necessary talent to drive business growth. 

Hard truths about DEI

TAFEP logo
TAFEP has been promoting the adoption of fair and progressive employment practices. However, encouragement can only go so far / Image Credit: THG Asia

The problem with showing even an iota of doubt about DEI is, one immediately gets labelled a racist, or a misogynist, amongst other things. As a result, many businesses now have a set of pledges and affirmations to placate the wokerati

They might even hire a diversity manager, or send their staff for diversity training, naively thinking that a few hours of re-education can overturn a lifetime of prejudices. 

What is perhaps the worst thing to promote diversity is a hiring quota. Instead of judging candidates for their skills, there is a directive and insistence that candidates must come from a particular race or gender. 

This myopic manner will certainly backfire because companies might end up with a United Nations of staff but nobody capable enough to do the work. It also makes a mockery out of the DEI process and reduces it into a box-ticking exercise.

While there are initiatives to address DEI at the workplace, they often do not go far or deep enough. 

The OneWorkplace.sg (OWP) programme, for example, focuses on the integration between local and non-local workforce. While laudable, it simplifies the workplace divide and fails to address the chasm between employers and employees, or even employees themselves. 

Meanwhile, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) has several guidelines, and employers can pledge to be a TAFEP partner. However, they are not legally binding. 

Employees have no way of knowing they are indeed passed over for a job because of their age or sexual orientation. There is also nothing an employee can do if their colleagues constantly speak in their Mother Tongue instead of using the lingua franca. 

At the end of the day, DEI policies are probably not reaching the workspaces that need them the most. Specifically, small-medium enterprises that are less concerned about litigation or brand name. 

In a traditional and somewhat intolerant society, organisations do not really want to change, but they do want to look as if they are.

Featured Image Credit: Zuehlke Singapore

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