Have you ever spent any time thinking about how challenging it can be to be different? Different in terms of age, ability, culture, sexuality, gender, race, behaviour, understanding, looks, social standing, education, family history, or any of the other countless ways in which we differ from the people beside us and around us.
If we are all unique then we are all different, but often we find ourselves drawn to people we think are most like us, who think like us, act like us or the people we aspire to be more like. Do we really spend time with people that are different to us? Do we educate ourselves on the barriers other people face that we don’t have to think about? If we are being realistic about encouraging diversity in society and in our workforce, then we also have to play a part as individuals in understanding the challenges that being different can bring, and the small steps we can take to allow people to genuinely be themselves both within the workplace and wider society.
But why do we need to celebrate diversity – surely, we all treat each other equally and HR policies mean we can’t discriminate on the grounds of race, religion, disability or gender – why do we need to shine a spotlight on any one thing more than another?
The simple answer is because we don’t! Influences such as our background, experiences and environmental conditions inform our thinking and can create bias that we don’t even know are there. This unconscious bias is something that we all have as human beings, but we can work to correct through widening our experiences and taking the time to understand life through a different lens.
This week at Phoenix Natural Gas we have been putting the spotlight on diversity and encouraging colleagues across the business to take just five minutes out of their day to educate themselves on the challenges that different groups of people can face and the simple steps we can take to better understand how people that might be different from us can feel or be treated.
Looking at cultural diversity, we spoke to Nisha Tandon at Arts Ekta, the organisation behind Northern Ireland’s largest celebration of cultural diversity, Belfast Mela, which brought more than 30,000 people together in 2019. Nisha spoke about her experiences of culture and challenged us all to think about how we can learn more and celebrate different cultural holidays such as those celebrated in Hindu religion in the same way that different cultures living here celebrate local traditions, reminding us that culture "can be so much more than green and orange”.
Often it is a fear that we might offend that holds us back from difficult conversations and Diane Hill from the NOW Group, who works with people that have a communication barrier, shared a simple step to avoid causing offence, just ask the person what term they are comfortable with, every individual with a disability or communication barrier is different and their disability shouldn’t and doesn’t define them. Diane also shared the importance of not stereotyping disability and capability as there is no limit to what people with a disability or a communication barrier can achieve with the right support.
We also spoke to Jo McParland at Cara Friend to help us better understand the challenges faced by people in the LGBTQ community from a workplace and societal perspective and Jo reinforced that from a gender identity and sexual orientation perspective it’s not about getting more rights it’s about getting access to the same rights and being treated and respected as equals within the workplace and wider society. That’s something which is not always possible in a society where binary gender identity and heterosexual orientation are the norm, which is why it’s as important now as ever to create a culture where people are valued and respected regardless of their gender identity and sexual orientation.
With an aging population meaning more of us will be working for longer, we wrapped up our spotlight on diversity by speaking with Eamon Clarke from Business in the Community NI’s Ageing Well at Work programme in partnership with Age NI, to understand the common misconceptions around ageing in the workplace. There’s been lots of discussion to date on supporting young workers in the workplace so we asked Eamon what employers can do to better support older workers. One of the areas Eamon felt it was important for employers to address is around development and ensuring that older colleagues are engaged and included in career development discussions, moving away from the stereotype of ‘just getting by to retirement’ and considering that people are choosing to work longer not just for financial reasons but also for their own well-being as we live healthier lives for longer. Talent schemes should reflect all generations within the business and a multi-generational workforce can increase productivity as each generation brings different skills and talents to the table.
Diversity is not a week long activity, it’s something which as a responsible business we have to continually practice, implement and monitor daily. It’s more than a short series of engagements, it’s about having a truly respectful and inclusive culture from the top down and it’s something that has to be consistently monitored and improved. Our spotlight on diversity this week was designed to encourage all of our employees to take a moment and look at life from a different perspective and understand that our society is not yet equal and that part of the solution lies with each of us to respect the views and rights of others as equal to our own.