Making the case for diversity: what is the evidence?

By David Donaldson

May 1, 2018

Abstract background of multi-colored cubes

Diversity and inclusion in the public sector “can be challenging at times” but lead to better outcomes for citizens, argues a report released by the New South Wales Public Service Commission.

It requires deliberate effort and leadership.

After all, “if diversity and inclusion was easy, it would have been solved already”, the commission notes.

Guidance on improving diversity can help public sector agencies wanting to make change, yet much of the literature comes from the private sector. So the commission hired Nous to speak to public servants about their own experiences. The report includes an examination of what NSW public servants think about diversity, how to go about improving it, and two case studies: on Australia Post and New Zealand Police.

Five key themes about diversity and inclusion emerged from their discussions:

  1. Diversity and inclusion are personal and can be challenging at times;
  2. Everyone in the workforce can benefit from greater diversity and inclusion;
  3. Progress will require genuine support starting from the top;
  4. Public servants deliver greater benefits for the people when everyone is able to contribute; and
  5. Everyone has a role in building a diverse and inclusive workplace.

“Diversity and inclusion is not something that can be managed as a ‘bolt on’ to workplace practices; it needs to be part of the DNA of a workforce’s culture that is integrated into organisational strategy,” says PSC chair Professor Peter Shergold in the foreword to the report.

“Employees told us a diverse and inclusive workforce has the potential to contribute to improved public engagement with NSW public services. Innovative problem solving and increased effectiveness, when combined with a better understanding of diverse communities, can lead to better service quality and greater service reach.

“This can then build trust and confidence in the NSW public sector and support greater engagement with services.”

Research showed that when employees feel more included at work, there are lower rates of unscheduled absence, Shergold adds. The report also emphasised the importance of leadership.

“Some promising personal stories emerged of leaders who through effective management of diversity were able to bring about significant benefits for teams and customers,” he says.

“This was coupled with a sense of frustration from employees who felt a lack of commitment from their managers in implementing diversity and inclusion practices. Managing in a diverse context is an important skill for the workforce of the future.”

Bringing your whole self to work

The report differentiates between diversity and inclusion, a distinction best summed up with a well-known quote: “Diversity is like a ticket to the dance. Inclusion is getting up and having a dance.”

It’s about creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable contributing — where people can bring their whole selves to work. One American study found that over 60% of employees hid or played down some element of their lives in the workplace; feeling the need to do so reduces morale.

NSW public sector employees highlighted the wellbeing benefits of an inclusive workplace including:

  • Reducing anxiety and increasing energy by feeling free to bring their whole selves to work;
  • Feeling accepted and valued by others despite differences;
  • Forming stronger professional networks and friendships by being your authentic self; and
  • Reducing conflict, bullying and discrimination through a culture of awareness and respect.

They also pointed to diversity as enabling better innovation and performance — a fresh pair of eyes can bring an important critical perspective where change is needed.

Employees were asked to identify actions they can take every day to make the workplace more diverse and inclusive. They suggested the following:

  • Rule people in rather than ruling them out;
  • Begin a conversation about diversity and be willing to talk about the hard topics;
  • Seek out a diversity of views and perspectives and apply these to your work;
  • Include diversity and inclusion concepts in workshops and meeting agenda items;
  • Call out bad behaviour and bystander behaviour of colleagues;
  • Continue to challenge individual bias and assumptions; and
  • Share and be proud of your own story of diversity and encourage others to do the same.

Reflecting the community you serve

The report also includes a review of the literature. Key themes to emerge are:

1. Satisfied customers

The most commonly reported benefit recorded in the literature about the public sector in Australia is that organisations that commit to diversity have a better chance of aligning their workforce with their customer base and improving the quality of their customer experience. The research suggests that organisations which reflect the communities they serve are better able to understand, connect and appeal to their customer base.

2. Improved performance

Demographic diversity in the workforce has been found to be a predictor of business performance. Studies indicate that organisations which commit to demographic diversity at leadership levels are more successful than those that do not. However, the literature mostly defines improved performance in terms of financial returns, which does not readily translate to public sector outcomes.

3. Increased productivity

Diverse workplaces and inclusive leadership have been found to be associated with higher levels of individual commitment and engagement, job satisfaction and career optimism. These measures have been used as indicators of organisational productivity with most of the research relying on employee perceptions.

4. Attracting and retaining employees

Diverse workplaces, when coupled with inclusion, have been found to have the capacity to attract the best talent from the widest possible pool, measured mainly through existing and future employee perceptions. This in turn leads to lower employee turnover. Conversely, the costs of not promoting diversity and inclusion can be significant in terms of high turnover, absenteeism and even litigation.

5. Better decision-making and innovation

The literature indicates that diversity can foster innovation, improved decision-making and creative problem solving by drawing on the broadest range of perspectives and experiences. Diverse thinkers can help to guard against group think and expert overconfidence, increase the scale of new insights and are better able to identify individuals who can best tackle the most pressing problems.

6. Employee wellbeing

Diversity and inclusion is also closely associated with a higher sense of employee wellbeing and psychological safety. The literature indicates that employees are more likely to feel valued and respected when their perspectives inform and enhance the core business of their work.

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