• Daisy Powell-Chandler

Why everybody hates you: Diversity - part 1 of 2

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

Reputation is formed from three main components: your own behaviour, the manner in which your behaviour is communicated, and the context in which that behaviour takes place. It is possible to change your behaviour, and you can certainly influence the manner of communication but in order to either of those things you need to understand the third – context. Many of the issues that affect your reputation are exceedingly complex. Money, race, gender, inequality, climate change – how can you possibly be expert enough in each of these areas and more in order to stay ahead of your critics and be (seen as) a ‘good company’?

This essay is the latest in a series that explains the context in which your corporate reputation is being formed, so that you can guide your own company safely through. Today we’re looking at the diversity. A lack of diversity in leading corporates not only deprives large parts of the population of opportunities for enjoyment, progression and fulfilment but it also stunts the productivity of those organisations perpetuating the exclusion. Today we’ll discuss the scale of inequality between different demographic groups, the potential that companies are losing out on and the challenges that organisations must overcome when creating a more diverse team. In part two, we cover the ways in which a lack of diversity can harm the quality of your products and communications.

Unequal Opportunity

Opportunity in the UK is not spread evenly:

  • A recent government audit of racial disparity found that Black Caribbean pupils are permanently excluded from school at three times the rate of white British pupils; black men are more likely to be found guilty at crown court, with 112 sentenced to custody for every 100 white men; and employment rates are higher for white people (77%) than ethnic minorities (65%).

  • The Office for National Statistics reports that the gender pay gap among full-time employees in the UK stands at 8.9% and concludes that “[o]ne of the reasons for differences in the gender pay gap between age groups is that women over 40 years are more likely to work in lower-paid occupations and, compared with younger women, are less likely to work as managers, directors or senior officials.”

  • The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) finds that more than a third of disabled people (36.8%) experience “severe material deprivation”, a rate that is nearly three times that of non-disabled people.

  • Research in the UK and US has found that fear of encountering prejudice makes LGBT individuals from seeking out healthcare and directly impacts their health.

  • Children from professional backgrounds are 80% more likely to go into a professional occupation such as law or medicine than their less privileged peers and even when those from working-class backgrounds are successful in entering professional occupations, they earn on average 17% less than more privileged colleagues.

Wherever you choose to look, you will uncover statistics that tell a clear story: that to differ from our society’s chosen norm – white, male, middle-class, straight, able-bodied – means you will live a materially more tricky life. This is bad for everybody. It is obviously bad for the groups who experience everyday bias and exclusion but it also damages corporate reputation and performance in a multitude of ways.

Diverse crowd
Photo by Rob Curran on Unsplash

The most basic of these links is simply a matter of maths. 14% of the UK is not white. 51% is female. 16% of the UK has a disability of some kind. 7% of the UK does not describe themselves as straight or heterosexual. Even assuming substantial overlaps between these groups, the numbers are significant. By not hiring, or explicitly catering for and appealing to these groups a company cuts itself off from more than half of the talent, the consumers, the influencers, the potential allies. Ignore these groups at your peril. Add to this that clients are beginning to ask more information about the teams that are working for them: 85% of employers on the social mobility index believe that their clients care about the social class mix of their workforce, 96% said clients cared about race and 99% about gender.

Ignorance and apathy are some of the biggest factors in maintaining inequalities. While these groups do sadly experience direct prejudice and exclusion, many of the examples I have mentioned above came about not because of individual racists, misogynists, or other -ists making determined and cruel decisions. They occurred because a multitude of tiny factors accumulated to create institutions that are inherently harder to navigate or succeed in if you are you do not fit our image of the default human. Author and activist Caroline Criado-Perez has done great work to shine a light on this problem and gives a good summary of the ‘default’ problem on this podcastwith the FT’s Andrew Hill. Reni Eddo-Lodge has also done an incredible job pointing out that it is not enough for white people to say that they are not racist while sitting in hierarchies made up exclusively of other Caucasians. It is not enough to be staffed by non-racists: if your organisation consistently hires or promotes white people over black then your company is institutionally racist.

The link here is that often our pre-existing structures reinforce patterns that are bad for humans and bad for business. But if creating a diverse team is so clearly advantageous, if the numbers are with us, why is it so hard to change these structures? Why is there so much resistance? Why are we still talking about this? I believe there are two key reasons for this and the first is at the root of many a workplace problem: we assume that there is a good reason for how things are currently. Often the pre-existing balance of talents is heavily influenced by historic inequalities. What does an MP look like? A white, well-off man. Who do you select when you look for more MPs? White, well-off men. Who shapes the system in which MPs need to work and in which any new MPs will have to operate? Errr… These kinds of long-lasting imbalances require active intervention in order to change. This is where our carefully evolved human instincts do us a disservice. Humans have a finely honed sense of loss aversion. We are more worried about losing what we have, than we are excited about gaining new benefits. Any new system or substantial change will create the threat of loss – and it is therefore far harder to change the status quo than one might expect.

The second reason why we have not adapted to make the best of diverse teams is the surprising sticking power of a deeply flawed piece of logic: that to recruit for diversity means we must compromise on merit. This argument was most famously deployed by American Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissenting opinion on the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy. Here he argued that colleges could choose either to recruit a diverse student body or to be ‘super duper’. The problem is that he makes two logical errors in this statement. There are some circumstances where what matters is having the ‘best’ at each specialism. These are typically simple or repetitive jobs with little team interaction. Running, processing timber. They are additive, which is to say that for each step the achievement of one part of the process, say felling the tree, acts as the starting point for the next step, perhaps selecting the wood to be used for making planks. But in the modern world, few well paid jobs take this form. The most sought-after, prestigious jobs – the ones we would like to see become more diverse – are the least likely to take place in this structure. Instead, knowledge workers interact in multi-disciplinary teams and have to be able to build with other team members. Here recruiting simply for speed or test scores overlooks the fact that diverse thinking has its own benefits and they include creating higher functioning teams (a subject that we will encounter in more depth next week). On top of that, there are few highly paid jobs where you only need to be good at one, measurable task – so that it is easy to identify who is ‘super duper’ at that one thing.

Irritating though it is, both of these barriers exist: the flawed status quo and loss aversion make change hard, and the logical lure of a performance vs diversity trade-off gives us justification for not trying too hard. It is no wonder that many sectors and workplaces remain remarkably homogenous.

Joining the club

One of the biggest culprits in reinforcing unequal hiring practices (possibly after our education system) is the search for ‘cultural fit’. The temptation is clear: you have a great team in place but you need more capacity. You want the new hire to fit in seamlessly and not disrupt the flow. So you are really explicit about your working culture in the advert, conduct multiple interview rounds with different members of the existing team and you pick someone who has all of the right qualifications and you would all happily socialise with. Great job! You have just hired a clone of your existing team! Your distinctive work culture will certainly have been off-putting for some, your interview process carefully tested to make sure your team feel comfortable and that the new hire will agree with you all as much as possible and you then chose someone who also shares attributes with your out-of-work social circle. Unfortunately, this process also ensures that your new hire brings very little additional insight to your team and probably means that they look very similar to the rest of you. As an example, in one office where I worked it was an inside joke that one of the directors only hired introverted white men who liked cricket.

Even when individuals from outside the norm are able to break into a new area their hard-won victory is itself fraught with danger. For a start it can be pretty alienating being the only person who looks like you and all too often that means encountering formal policies and informal habits that are poorly constructed or downright alienating. Consider, for example, a Muslim joining an office that makes all of its big decisions over beer and pork scratchings.

This effect can have an immediate impact on the experience of interviewees and employees in your business and that, in turn, has a profound impact on your reputation and, in turn, on your productivity, recruitment bills and bottom line.

Another downside is the expectation amongst some colleagues that you will ‘represent’ your minority in group discussions. Want to know how black people feel about an issue? Or what viewpoint an adoptee might have? Then having someone in your office with that experience is a great opportunity to pick their brains but it also puts a lot of pressure on them to not only perform but also to act as a mouthpiece for maybe millions of people. If you need to understand that audience then maybe you should do some actual research. As well as the toll on the individual involved, this kind of tokenistic thinking, or ‘performative diversity’ can lead to terrible decision-making.

I remember vividly a near-miss from my time working in politics. It was a few months before the 2010 election and David Cameron was due to give an interview to a journalist for an LGBT magazine. I was one of two briefing officers, whose job it was to collate and fact-check the information that DC needed to stay informed and on top of things during the crazy days of back-to-back meetings, campaign stops and photo calls. One minute I would be summarising an international treaty negotiation, the next writing a summary of ‘I’m a celebrity’. It was high stress and everything moved FAST.

On this particular day I was putting together a briefing about blood donation and the gay community while my colleague collated figures about the sexuality of the Conservative Party’s candidates and MPs. She let out a confused sound: “errrr” “Everything alright?” “I’m not sure… While I’m pretty sure that X is gay, I don’t think he’s out. I haven’t seen any coverage” “He’s not on my list,” I said (obviously we had lists of everything) “where did that list come from?” “It’s from the draft press release for tomorrow”. We asked the Candidates’ team if they had provided the names – they are the people who hold all of the personal data and permissions from individuals about the format in which it may be shared – and they did not recognise the list, nor had they been asked for one. So we went back to the press team and asked them where it had come from. It turned out that a journalist had asked for a number – the percentage of gay candidates – and in an effort to be helpful the gay guy on the press team had written a list that did not take into account the preferences of those individuals (see here for more about personal data!). Via a series of bad decisions, this list ended up on an official press release and it is only thanks to my diligent colleague that several individuals were not accidentally outed by an unknowing Leader of the Opposition.

This memory still gives me palpitations and taught me a lot about fact-checking. With hindsight what it really shows is the danger of assuming that any one individual can or should be assumed to wield all of the relevant knowledge about a particular area just because of their own demographics. And, depending on your politics, I know you may be thinking that this probably happened because it was the Conservatives and they don’t understand what it means to be LGBT but perhaps you may be surprised to learn that that was the gayest office I have ever worked in: more than 10% of my wider team was gay. Nonetheless, this a startling example of how the treatment of individuals from minority groups can have a direct knock-on effect on your reputation, even in an organisation that is relatively good at providing opportunity for that group.

Looking diverse can also create false comfort within team that they share diverse viewpoints when often teams either hire for ‘cultural fit’ – read ‘thinking the same way’ – or the presence of powerful social dynamics has actually encouraged initially diverse viewpoints to converge in to a single group view of the world. To continue with the example of the Conservative Party, that group of individuals may have seemed on one dimension to be more diverse than many, but my team almost exclusively hired graduates of perhaps four universities and routinely had to allocate nicknames to new members of staff because otherwise it got too confusing when everyone was called Nick, Henry or Stephen.

It is clear that even if you manage to start down the journey of hiring for diversity, there are still myriad reputational dangers along the way, so perhaps you are wondering why bother? Because the risks of not trying are even worse for your immediate bottom line and your long-term reputation. Next week we are going to look at three areas where not creating diversity threatens your business: by creating worse teams, worse products and worse communication.

What to do about it? Three key points to consider

There are times when ‘diversity’ simply feels like the latest management buzzword to become your problem but there is a reason why there is so much buzz. A lack of diversity alienates your organisation from swathes of the population – the same people who are your customers, investors, regulators and so on. A lack of diversity is alienating to recruits – meaning you are recruiting from a smaller talent pool – and to employees – which will cost you more in staff turnover, loss of productivity and recruitment. Moreover, a lack of diversity in your team lays you open to some serious tactical errors.

Work harder on diversity issues
Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

In future, I’ll talk far more about how organisations can navigate these tricky issues (subscribe here if you want to be sent my articles as they appear each Wednesday) but for the time being, these are my key takeaways on this issue:

  • Check your privilege. It’s a cliché but also an important reminder. Just because you are pretty confident that neither you nor your colleagues harbour any nasty prejudices, doesn’t mean that you aren’t part of an institution that perpetuates a deeply unfortunate hierarchy. Look around yourself and if everyone looks and thinks the same, it’s time to sense check the ‘meritocracy’ that selected that group.

  • Diversity is not the enemy of achievement. In fact, the evidence shows that diversity is implicitly a useful tool that enhances what a team can achieve and the numbers show pretty clearly the large sections of audiences that you may be alienating under the status quo.

  • Eyes on the prize. If your organisation is suffering from ‘Diversity Fatigue’, keep everyone focused not on the drawbacks and hard going of changing procedures but on what you stand to gain if you succeed.


This essay is a starting point that will equip you to understand the debate about diversity and the role it plays in your corporate reputation. There is much, much more to this conversation. What have you read that cast a light on this? How have you tackled this problem in your organisation? I’d love to hear more from you and will add reading suggestions to this resources list so it can improve over time.

Caroline Criado-Perez: Invisible Women

Reni Eddo-Lodge: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Scott E. Page: The Diversity Bonus

Matthew Syed: Rebel Ideas

Want more? Find part two of this essay here