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What can employers do to promote ethnic diversity?

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator
Ethnic diversity in the workplace benefits individuals, businesses and society. Here are 5 examples of how employers can promote ethnic diversity in their organisation.

You may have read our article about ethnic diversity in the workplace, which covers topics like why it's important, and how Australian employers stack up when it comes to ethnic diversity. It might make you feel as if workplace diversity is a lost cause: if the implementation of anti-discrimination laws and company diversity policies made no difference, what will? Surely it’s not the responsibility of people from minority ethnic groups to conceal their identities in an effort to gain (and even maintain) employment?

Take heart: there is a lot more that can be done, and, as an employer, you too are empowered to advocate for positive change in the workplace. While the list below is hardly exhaustive, we believe the following four strategies represent a good starting point for employers who would like to create more diverse and inclusive work environments.

Implement appropriate policies and encourage open communication

Under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986, its various supporting acts (such as the Fair Work Act 2009), and state laws (such as Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act 2010), all businesses have a responsibility to make sure that their employees, and people who apply for a job with them, are treated fairly. One way to encourage the creation of a workplace that emphasises fairness for people of all ethnic backgrounds (and genders, and ages, and so on) is to implement an anti-discrimination policy. For guidance on how to do so, you can refer to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s employer toolkit, which includes a helpful template.

You may also wish to implement a policy that sets out your diversity targets and the processes you will implement in order to reach them.  A diversity policy will reflect the current status of diversity within your business, as well as the most appropriate strategies for reaching your goals. For guidance, you might review the diversity strategies adopted by organisations such as Medibank, Westpac, the Law Council of Australia, and the Australian Human Rights Commission itself.

Finally, one of the best resources you have when implementing policies designed to improve ethnic and cultural diversity is the feedback of your own employees. Section 6.2 of McKinsey’s 2018 Leading for Change report provides helpful advice on handling any resistance or hostility within your team, and cautions that 'too often, the virtue of celebrating diversity is used to deflect from more challenging conversations about diversity and difference'. To facilitate such conversations, you can consider following the AHRC’s guidelines for implementing an effective internal complaint process.  

Become aware of your unconscious biases

Unconscious (or implicit) biases, unlike conscious biases, are views and opinions of which we are unaware; they’re automatically activated, operating outside of our conscious awareness to affect our everyday behaviour and decision-making. Our unconscious biases are influenced by our background, culture, context, and personal experiences.

Such biases belong to a broader category of mental shortcuts known as ‘heuristics’, which allow the human mind to unconsciously prioritize, generalize, and dismiss large volumes of input. These shortcuts can be very useful when making decisions with limited information, focus, or time. However, they can also lead people astray, with unintended consequences in the workplace (and in society more generally).

If you’ve ever taken a first-year psychology course, there’s a good chance that you may even have assessed your own unconscious biases via one of contemporary social psychology’s most influential studies: the Harvard Implicit Association Test. If not, you can take it for free online.

During the IAT, participants are asked to sort various concepts (including names and personality traits) into categories such as ‘white and unpleasant’ or ‘black and unpleasant’. At the end of the test, they receive a score indicative of the strength of any implicit association they may hold with regards to the test categories (the Australian portal allows you to test for implicit associations related to concepts such as sexuality, age, race, skin-tone, and ethnic ancestry).

More than six million people have taken the IAT since it first appeared online in 1998, and the results, of course, vary from person to person. In fact, as the creators of the test themselves are at pains to emphasise, the IAT is not intended as a personal diagnostic tool. Rather, its key insight is to be found in the aggregated historical results of all participants, which, despite some controversy, have led to the general consensus that almost everybody harbours unconscious biases. Even if they don’t reliably predict discrimination at the individual level, implicit biases can have large effects on society.

So how do unconscious biases affect workplace ethnic diversity? It’s been amply demonstrated (such as with the resume study above) that implicit biases may disadvantage people from minority ethnic groups. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that some of the most influential organisations in Australia and abroad (including Google, Facebook, and PwC) have implemented mandatory unconscious bias training. The training can take various forms: participants may be presented with counterexamples that challenge their biases (for example, stories about the success of new migrants); meditation (which can increase empathy and compassion for the victims of prejudice); and tasks that involve imagining oneself as a victim of unconscious bias.

There’s substantial evidence that such training can work: but only if it’s delivered in certain ways, and with the measured expectation that one will affect change at the individual level. After all, it’s not clear that unconscious bias training reliably improves diversity within organisations. In fact, according to a Harvard meta-analysis, some forms of mandatory training may even make things worse.

What does count is starting a conversation about how implicit beliefs can affect our behaviour towards each other, before considering sensible, evidence-based ways to create more harmonious workplaces. You can also consider whether or not unconscious biases are affecting your behaviour, and, if necessary, take action to develop a more inclusive mindset.

As a final note, we submit for your entertainment one example of the disclaimers that routinely appear at the end of almost all (reputable) papers on unconscious bias:

Consider anonymising job applications

In 2013, researchers at ANU demonstrated (via 4,000 fictitious job applications) that candidates with Anglo-Saxon names had a huge advantage: for example, to receive an equal number of interview invitations, a person with an identifiably Chinese name would need to submit 68% more applications. More recently, three academics at the University of Toronto expanded the study by submitting 13,000 applications with very similar results: people with Chinese, Indian or Pakistani-sounding names were 28% less likely to get invited to an interview than the fictitious candidates with English-sounding names, even when their qualifications were the same.

How can companies prevent such obvious bias? One approach involves the same technique by scientists when they wish to safeguard their results against potential interference: it’s called ‘blinding’, or, in this case, ‘blind recruitment’.

In its most common form, blind recruitment involves companies receiving a job application from which all personally identifying features (such as ethnicity, gender, age and educational background) have been excised. (More famously, some orchestras require instrumentalists to audition behind a screen, so that they can be judged only on the merits of their musical performance.)

Australian organisations that use blind recruitment processes include Deloitte, Ernst & Young, Victoria Police and Westpac Bank. They do so for good reason too: blind recruitment appears to work. For example, in 2016, it allowed the Australian Bureau of Statistics to boost its recruitment of women. More research will be required before there is definitive proof that blind recruitment improves ethnic diversity in Australian organisations: however the negative impact of ethnic identifiers on resumes (see above) does suggest that anonymity could help more applicants from culturally diverse backgrounds get a foot in the door.

Make use of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Workplace Cultural Diversity Tool

The Workplace Cultural Diversity Tool allows employers to confidentially evaluate the cultural diversity of their workplaces in relation to 30 markers of cultural competence represented by statements such as:

  • Our jobs are advertised through culturally diverse media outlets such as Indigenous and ethnic community newspapers, community organisations and networks.
  • Significant cultural/religious days or periods other than Easter and Christmas are taken into account in planning and arranging our key business events.
  • Shortlisting and interviewing procedures include measures designed to reduce bias towards applicants from culturally diverse backgrounds, such as removing identifying information from applications before assessment.
  • Our organisation formally evaluates its progress against its cultural diversity strategy at agreed milestones to track progress, reports on the results and uses them to inform our planning and policies.

At the end of the assessment, you’ll receive recommendations of practical steps that you can take to create and manage a culturally diverse workforce.

Consider integrating contextual recruitment into your hiring strategy

Pioneered by the UK-based graduate recruitment company Rare, contextual recruitment uses big data to help identify high potential job candidates by considering their achievements in light of social mobility data. For example, in Australia, job applications are ten times more likely to come from socially advantaged postcodes and 12 times more likely to come from an educationally advantaged postcode.

Certainly, on paper, it may appear that candidates from the top schools and universities will be a better fit for organisations determined to attract and retain talented employees. However, contextual recruitment acknowledges that this isn’t necessarily the best way to identify determined and resilient workers. For example, consider two applicants with identical grades: the first came from a school in the 20th percentile, whereas the second came from one of the top schools in the state. Who to hire?

In such a situation, contextual recruitment might allow employers to see that the first candidate achieved grades 37 percent higher than their cohort, whereas the second achieved grades two percent lower than their cohort. Similar grades then, and yet it’s the first applicant who is the true outlier, having succeeded in spite of a less advantageous environment.

Interestingly, research has established a relationship between the ‘outperformance’ identified by contextual recruitment and later professional success. Better still, contextual recruitment leads to a 50 percent increase in the hiring of disadvantaged graduates.

In any case, the results have been promising enough to convince many of Australia’s most prestigious graduate employers to integrate contextual recruitment into their hiring practices. As of 2018, these businesses include Allens, King & Wood Mallesons, Deloitte, Clayton Utz, Deutsche Bank, and Thomas Reuters.