Discussing diversity brings difficult truths to bear on an organisation, and fostering it is about more than well meaning strategies – it needs to be enthusiastically embraced by managers, says Lubna Haq

Illustration of speech bubble made up of lots of different people

Speech bubble

I have lived in this country since I was four years old so my education, upbringing, cultural and social references are English. Indeed, proudly being British was how I saw myself.

‘Writing about diversity creates such strong reactions that many of my friends and family tell me not to do it’

I feel strongly about diversity. But it’s becoming a tick box exercise, not viewed as part of a wider cultural change to bring organisations into the 21st century.

In 1980, aged 18, I received a phone call to say my brother was involved in a road traffic accident and had been taken to hospital. I was on my way to a family wedding and rushed 40 miles to see him, still dressed in my fancy traditional outfit.

By the time I had managed to find the hospital and park the car, I was incredibly stressed. Arriving at the accident and emergency reception desk I found I couldn’t speak –– literally. I just needed a minute to collect myself.

The next thing I saw was the receptionist dismissively turning her back to say to a colleague, “Another one who doesn’t speak any English.” She had not thought to ask me if I was OK, or to find out if I needed help or assistance. It did not take long for me to find my voice.

Uncomfortable truth

My brother was fine and we still laugh about the story today. In many ways, the moment caught me off guard but deep down, I actually wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t surprised because of something my grandmother taught me as a child.

‘Bringing diversity up at a dinner party or in the workplace can be a conversation stopper’

Ever the pragmatist, she said: “Your life may be good now and you may not get treated differently at school but be aware, you will not always be treated well.” I didn’t understand her then but I soon did.

At 18 my bubble was well and truly broken when I went to university and encountered discrimination of the most insidious and overt type. It was only because I had extremely supportive parents that I learnt to demonstrate resilience and developed coping tactics for the day to day reality of being an Asian in Britain.

In 2014 diversity is still a topic that makes people extraordinarily uncomfortable. Bringing it up at a dinner party or in a workplace environment can be a conversation stopper. 

Battling perceptions

Writing about diversity creates such strong reactions that many of my friends and family tell me not to do it. A relative of mine who happens to be a surgeon said: “People will think you are a militant Asian woman and it will impact adversely on your career.”

‘I see red when I hear senior people talking about “treating everyone the same”’

So I have decided to talk more about race and diversity. I believe that these conversations will help us to provide better healthcare. By doing this, maybe we can all be a little less anxious and a little more daring in our conversations.

In England in 2014 we have significant disparities that cannot be ignored in healthcare.

Diversity by numbers

  • The NHS employs 1.4 million people
  • 18 per cent are from BME backgrounds
  • This includes four chief executives
  • There are four BME directors of nursing
  • 4 per cent of the workforce has disclosed a disability
  • 1 per cent has declared they are gay, lesbian or bisexual

Source: Health and Social Care Information Centre

If we don’t talk about diversity now, it holds back equality in healthcare and true innovation.

Personally I do not believe it is right to “treat everyone the same” and I see red when I hear senior people talking about this being the right approach to achieve equality.

By treating everyone the same we are perpetuating institutional discrimination and saying that it is OK not to challenge unconscious bias.

Honesty and courage

We have to be willing to have proactive conversations about diversity with honesty, understanding and courage, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do. In this way an appreciation of difference becomes weaved into the very essence of how we think, behave and operate.

‘Diversity efforts seem to be losing momentum and support’

This is not rocket science, although with the lack of progress that has been made, it sometimes feels like it.

A school of thought has emerged amid those people who think that diversity has run its course because it does not address the needs of contemporary society. They make the case that we focus on the achievement of our organisational strategy.

Of course, a focus on strategic objectives is key, but not at the cost of excluding diversity.

So far, we have been trying to solve 21st century talent issues with 20th century solutions using a model of business designed by men in a bygone world.

Today, diversity efforts seem to be losing momentum and support. For fundamental cultural change we need managers enthusiastically involved.

Quality of environment

Let’s tear up the rule book when it comes to roles, hierarchies and career paths and start thinking differently about recruitment, management styles, and corporate culture and values.

‘Invite people into your life who don’t look or act like you and they might challenge your assumptions’

We still need best practice policies and procedures to continue to play an acute role in helping us to develop talent at all levels. And measuring this success is critical.

We need reliable, meaningful data, exemplary recruitment practices, support and development, mentoring, affinity groups and organisational champions. But the focus for managers and leaders in this new paradigm is on the quality of the work environment and the full utilisation of the skills of our full payroll.

This takes a huge step beyond compliance and lip service – because it doesn’t leave anyone out. It is a message of inclusion and mutual respect. It creates work environments that are inclusive, cooperative, innovative and productive for all.

Powerful insight

Everyone needs to see the benefit for them and their personal responsibility in making it happen. You can’t mandate cultural change. You have to build a strong foundation where the norm becomes the inclusive culture.

Embrace inclusion in all its forms and let’s pledge to stop being intimidated by it. I ask each of you to do something simple: observe your environment at work, with your friends and at home. 

Look at the people around you purposefully and intentionally. Invite people into your life who don’t look like you, don’t think like you, don’t act like you, don’t come from where you come from, and you might find that they will challenge your assumptions and make you grow as a person. 

You might get powerful new insights from these individuals. This will help us to develop cultural change that is woven into the fabric of the way in which we behave in our health service.

Lubna Haq is head of healthcare consulting at Hay Group