Blog: Friday, 11 November 2022

“I find it admirable that you just dare to wear these kind of outfits,” said my uncle to my brother last Christmas, the first time he saw him in a dress. I understood that my uncle only wanted to express his support. I also understand that most of us are not used to seeing a guy in a dress. And many of us, if we find ourselves in such an unusual situation, do not always have the references for an immediate and well thought-through response. It might even take us time to process the new situation.

My brother wasn’t offended when my uncle made this comment, but it still felt a little ‘off’. My uncle did not say that he liked the dress, or that it really suited my brother; he just said that it was a courageous move. You could even interpret it as an insult, as if he had said my brother looked ridiculous and that he respected everyone who had the balls to leave the house like that.


Of limited benefit

Obviously, my uncle’s intentions were innocent and he only wanted to express his support, but he made at least five more similar comments that night and my brother felt more like an animal in the zoo than a regular family member joining a family dinner. It was a symbolic moment for him as he often meets people who are suddenly overly supportive or interested in his pronouns or the gender with which he identifies.

In the current organizational landscape, where there is a comparable trend of increasing attention on promoting diversity and retrieving the corresponding organisational benefits, this example from my family could function as a message for organisations. Particularly because most mid-sized and large companies incorporate diversity and inclusion programmes in their HR practices but only 25 per cent of employees actually feel like they benefitted from these programmes.*

Accurate implementation

The impact of my uncle’s words and his struggle in the new situation point out the complexity and the relevance of an accurate implementation of inclusion. It shows that fostering diversity is more than just creating a diverse workforce. The anecdote clearly shows the difference between ‘real inclusion’ in which people actually have a sense of genuine belonging and feel included regardless of the generic social category in which they fall, and ‘surface inclusion’ in which people are included because they are ‘special’ and seen as being representatives of a social group.**

I think the overemphasis on diversity could be a cause of the striking ineffectiveness of many D&I programmes. The obsessive focus on hiring and employing people just because they deviate from the norm has an adverse effect on inclusion. By selecting based on such basic characteristics and therefore determining reasons why one would deviate from the ‘regular’, organisations are essentially labelling people and creating boxes. Consequently, people who are hired because they are labelled as ‘divergent’ or ‘special’ are not likely to feel genuinely appreciated nor included. While as their primal characteristics as race, gender, sexual orientation, educational background, etc., would not be of interest, real inclusion is way more likely to be accomplished.

I find it admirable that you just dare to wear these kind of outfits

Seeing people as people

As Peter Bregman states in a Harvard Business Review: “Instead of seeing people as categories, we need to see people as people. Stop training people to be more accepting of diversity”.***  People are inherently different, and their differences are valuable. Social boxes or categories are not needed to capture these differences, they only create segregation and provide a superficial insight of an individual’s unique potential.

The book The Future of Work clearly advocates: “Managers should recognize but not overemphasize people’s differences.” A colour-blind approach does not work either, but celebrating and stressing the differences between people is likely to eventually go over in the endorsement of stereotypes. Hence, a middle ground is required in which differences in any form are recognised and valued. Everyone is included in conversations because everyone’s perspective is worthwhile in itself and decisions should benefit all.

Diverse perspectives are valuable for organisational effectiveness. However, creating diversity in the workplace is not as simple as it may seem. By placing the emphasis on diversity and creating generic categories like race or gender, you will essentially be doing the same as my uncle who expressed his support for my brother for the sole reason that he acted differently from the norm.

This overemphasis on divergent behaviour and categories is dehumanizing and it fails to respect the complexity of us human beings. Hence, organizations should focus on people and acknowledge that we are inherently diverse. When people are appreciated for being people and for their unique set of differences, diversity in any form will follow.

Lucas Schuurmans

MSc graduate Human Resource Management

Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)

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