‘Diversity and inclusion’ is becoming a popular phrase inside the boardrooms of insurance firms, but how many leaders are putting words into action?
Not quite enough, according to the results of the latest annual Deep Dive on Inclusion Survey Report, published by ANZIIF in partnership with Wotton + Kearney and Liberty Specialty Markets.
Drawing on the responses of 400 professionals across the insurance and risk industry, it shows that while more than 70 per cent of respondents at leadership level consider themselves to be advocates for diversity and inclusion, only 60 per cent can recall personally supporting an initiative.
The inclusion challenge
The report links to this year’s Dive In Festival theme of ‘Active Allyship and Empowerment’ and aims to gain a deeper understanding of the extent to which people are actively involved in supporting diversity and inclusion initiatives in their organisations.
The report’s author, Dr Jennifer Whelan, describes inclusion as an ‘insulating buffer against the many challenges that teams are facing’.
‘People can cope with a lot, so long as they feel that they can trust their colleagues, that they can communicate openly and that their voice matters,’ says Whelan, Founder and Managing Director of Psynapse, a consultancy that helps organisations to promote diversity and inclusion.
‘Certainly, none of my clients are disputing the fact that inclusion is a skill that they need to focus on for leaders going forward.’
The COVID-19 pandemic and global activism surrounding issues like Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement have placed inclusion among mainstream socio-political issues.
But despite inclusion attracting a brighter spotlight over the past two years, the report shows people are feeling less included overall, less connected to their colleagues, and more worried about their place in their teams.
‘We ran the 2020 inclusion survey in the middle of the first COVID lockdowns when a momentous shift was taking place, and we wanted to know how people were feeling and adjusting to working from home,’ says Whelan.
‘It was not at all surprising that they were feeling a little bit less connected, a little bit more uncertain about things.
‘The latest survey was conducted in the middle of the major Delta outbreaks last year, so we expected COVID-19 to continue to impact on this year’s results.’
However, Whelan notes that progress has been made in term so people’s willingness to disclose personal information, such as gender identity and sexuality.
‘It’s a positive sign that more people feel comfortable to disclose personal information, as it suggests they feel safer to be themselves,’ says Whelan, noting that disclosure can be an informal barometer of the openness of workplace cultures and how they embrace authenticity and inclusion.’
Inclusion in action
Hamid Senni, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Wotton + Kearney, says leaders must start ‘walking the talking’.
‘Leaders are very good at promoting diversity and inclusion in 3-minute corporate videos, but what’s missing is the role modelling,’ he says.
‘No matter how many inclusion training sessions you hold, transformation has to come from the top. Perhaps some leaders don’t realise how influential their actions are.
‘People will mirror what they see happening at the leadership levels of organisations,’ adds Senni.
‘If it’s just a lot of talk about inclusion, but no action, nothing will really change.’
Senni notes that the business case for diversity and inclusion was well established before the global pandemic.
‘People were working together in an office Monday to Friday before COVID, so there was an opportunity to create a genuinely inclusive environment,’ says Senni.
‘If it wasn’t already in place, it’s become far more challenging with people working remotely.’
Leaders feel more included
While many people have benefitted from the mainstreaming of flexible work, the latest report also shows some significant negative impacts in terms of psychological safety.
‘You can’t have inclusive teams without psychological safety,’ says Whelan.
‘That means things like not having to hide aspects of your identity at work, feeling like it’s a safe place to admit you don't always know the answer, that you’ve made mistakes and to experiment with solutions.’
The report also shows that inclusion increases with seniority. Senior leaders felt more connected throughout COVID-19 compared to individuals and less senior leaders.
They also felt less worried about their place in their team. This suggests that while leaders may feel connected with each other, their teams feel less certain and secure.
‘This doesn’t happen out of nasty intent,’ says Whelan. ‘But if you get to set the rules, it's not surprising that you may do that with yourself in mind, or perhaps you incorporate ideas around the average employee.
‘If you can't sit comfortably in the shoes of a person from an underrepresented group and imagine what they need and want from a workplace, from a leadership culture and from a team culture, then it's highly likely that you’ve created a workplace with yourself in mind.’
Whelan adds that an important step for leaders is to consider the reason that they feel included.
‘The more senior you are, the more wedded you may be to those rules, because you've come up through a system that has rewarded you and the kind of person you are,’ she says.
‘You have benefited from the way the culture is and that probably means you get to work with people who look and sound like you.’
‘If I'm sitting in a room with a bunch of people who look and sound like me, of course I’ll feel included,’ adds Whelan.
‘So, as we start to bring more diversity into organisations, especially into leadership levels, we need to start building cultures with more than one perspective in mind and without assuming everybody's having the same experience.’
Setting the inclusion agenda
How can leaders create a sense of inclusion, particularly in hybrid working environments? Whelan says it starts with communication.
‘You really have to go above and beyond to get to know your people,’ she says. ‘Keep checking in with people regularly, one-on-one and as a group, so that you can understand their context and their operating pressures.
'When people in your team are working form home, are they also trying to school kids at the same time? Do they live in a multi-generational house where they don't have separate workspace?’
Whelan also recommends having conventions and norms around how virtual meetings are conducted.
‘Do you want people to have their cameras on or off? Do you make sure you hear from everybody in a meeting instead of just the one or two people who you can see on your screen?
'Do you set aside time at the start of a meeting for people to warm up, because it could take a little bit longer for people to feel comfortable when you don’t have the body language and eye contact and non-verbal cues that you can pick up when you're in a room with somebody.’
Treating people with respect doesn’t cost a cent, adds Whelan.
‘If you’re not sure about a person’s gender pronoun or how to pronounce someone’s name, do you avoid talking to them altogether, or do you ask them the question?’ she says. ‘It’s a pretty simple answer. It’s about respect.’