How to unlock the true power of diversity and inclusion

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership,Uncategorized] April 18, 2019

Implementing a truly effective diversity and inclusion strategy within a firm is more about creating the right culture and less about complying with laws or hosting diversity days, writes Leonie Green.

Diversity and inclusion have been buzz words for a while now.

Bigger firms and companies have dedicated resources focused on these two workplace phenomena, but that doesn’t mean they always do better in this space. Smaller firms can sometimes have an advantage as they can more closely control (for positive effect) the experience of everyone who walks through their door.

So, what does ‘diversity and inclusion’ really mean and why does it matter? Well, it stemmed initially from a compliance focus; making sure companies were not discriminating against employees or clients on the basis of protected attributes (see an interesting history on this here). Over time, however, diversity and inclusion has moved beyond compliance into a focus on culture: the customs, social norms and experience of any given work environment.

Ultimately, compliance measures don’t actually protect your firm: culture does. Compliance measures might enable you to tick a box to say you have a policy and that you trained the relevant people on it. However, once you get to the point of having to tick that box you have already lost on the productivity front for everyone involved. It’s always better to avoid a legal claim in the first place.

Building a better culture

So how do we build a culture that avoids claims? (and, a far better question … how do we build a culture that gets the best from our people?)

We need to build workplace cultures that celebrate diversity. Every day; and in the everyday way. Not in a ‘we have a diversity and inclusion day once-a-year’ way.

Why? Because, whether we realise it or not, the talent pool is very diverse. It is made up of different genders, different races, different religions, different ethnic backgrounds, different sexualities, different life experiences and interests – it is not homogeneous.

Our Australian culture is diverse. Our talent pool is very diverse. If we are not recognising this, celebrating it and making sure that diversity is welcomed and celebrated, then we are cutting off our access to the talent needed to build successful firms.

I had a conversation with a client a few months ago which has stayed with me. He is a practice manager in a small firm. He told me that for the first time in his career he is working for a firm that doesn’t just accept his sexuality; it actually celebrates difference and champions the rights of the LGBTIQ+ community. He realised that for the first time in his career, he is bringing his whole self to work. He feels seen. He feels like he doesn’t need to conform to some other way of being.

We have all had to conform in some way during our careers, I am sure. I remember adapting to wearing suits after the comfort of casual clothes through university. Some of that ‘conforming’ is okay, and appropriate. Some of it, however, is counter-productive and results in our people not giving their all. Some of the act of conforming results in us denying who we are at our core.

When it comes to improving productivity, it’s the sometimes elusive notion of ‘discretionary effort’ that we all seek which can make the difference to a team member’s contribution to our firm’s success.  The power of diversity and inclusion is in making sure that our culture enables our team members to bring their whole selves to work and not feel that they need to conform to a norm that is an unhelpful norm, or that denies or disrespects a fundamental element of who they are when they are not at work.

Questions to consider

I am a mum. I am the daughter of an 86-year-old mother. I am a woman. I am married and I value my marriage enough to want to spend quality and quantity time with my amazing husband. I don’t want to work in an environment that doesn’t recognise all of that variety. We are kidding ourselves if we think those who work for us are okay with denying any of their other priorities and needs. We only start winning as a firm when we recognise the different experiences and needs of our people; and ask what else we can do to get the best from our people.

Here are some quick ways to consider how this is done (remembering, of course, that culture builds over time; there are no quick wins, only quick losses):

  • What values does your firm espouse? Are they lived and experienced values, or are they just words on the wall?
  • What conversations are open, and what are closed down?
  • When did you last celebrate an event beyond Christmas, Easter, birthdays and anniversaries?
  • What do you consider the ‘norm’ for your firm? Does it need challenging? Is it really a norm that serves you?
  • Where is the greatest talent pool for your firm’s future and how do you make sure you are positioned to attract that talent?
  • If I am new to your firm, what are things I see every day that makes me believe the firm embraces and celebrates diversity?
  • How much do you appreciate the diversity that your firm represents?

Chances are if you have made it to the end of this article you are already on your way to winning in this space. Make the most of it. Celebrate it. Keep working on it and make it your edge. Diversity and inclusion is powerful. It can lift your productivity if it is done for the right reasons and for reasons that truly celebrate and make the most of difference.

Leonie Green is a co-founder and director of the Corvus Group, a workplace and legal advisory firm with more than 20 years of senior legal and HR experience working in Australian and international companies. She practised as an employment and industrial relations lawyer for a number of years prior to moving into management roles in industrial relations, shared services and human resources. She can be contacted via email at