Airport People Power: Diversity

People top view

This is part three of a series where I explore concepts associated with people management, inspired by Greg Principato's post on the key concern of airport executives: people. Part one is on discipline and part two on development.

So far, we’ve discussed people management techniques that apply to your current workforce. This article relates more to building or replenishing your team in a way that should see its output increase. It is also a relatively controversial concept.

The reasons why workforce diversity is still a “special interest” activity rather than part of our “day to day” varies. It is likely to be a combination of poorly implemented corporate policy, fearful entrenched management and, even cultural prejudice (be it racism, sexism, agism, etc.). It might also be because diversity interventions can conflict with a person’s morals and values.

To help us avoid some of these problems, we’re are going to look at two limited premises - the benefits of diversity and unconscious biases - and one technique leaders can use to embrace and promote diversity. And unless otherwise stated, this article considers diversity across multiple domains including gender, disability, ethnicity, etc.

Diversity is Better Business

There appears to be at least two different types of arguments that diversity is not only good business but better business. The first category puts forward that diverse teams perform better than non-diverse teams. The second category argues that with society becoming more diverse generally, businesses need to embrace diversity in order to maintain their workforce.

In the first case, research abounds with comparisons between businesses said to be more diverse and those considered less with results said to show that the first group outperforms the second. The diversity being examined includes numbers of women on the board, gender in the general workforce (.docx file), and ethnic diversity in the general workforce.

Since the numbers all vary, readers are encouraged to explore these and other links to satisfy themselves on whether performance and diversity correlate.

On the second point, demographics of western society typically show that the representation “traditional” white, male workforce is shrinking relative to other sections of society. In non-western societies, change is also occurring due to globalisation and an increasingly mobile society.

In order to attract and retain this “new” workforce, business has to embrace diversity (often referred to as diversity’s twin, inclusion). In a competitive job market, those companies and those teams that work to foster an inclusive environment, will get their pick of the talent. Why would you want to shut out a growing segment of the labour pool?


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Barriers to Better Business

And yet people, leaders and team members, still put up barriers to diversity. The reasons may vary with fear, apathy and ignorant bliss as examples but this author believes that they are always rooted in some internal bias.

These biases may be deep-rooted prejudices or they may be rather superficial rules of thumb based on experience or the cultural context in which one has grown-up. Sometimes, they might be rather explicit and conscious or they can be quite unconscious. It could be argued that all biases have an unconscious root*.

It’s Not Your Fault

Unconscious biases are a product of our experiences. As we have travelled through life, we have learnt things, who to trust, what works well, where danger lurks, and we have constructed mental models of the world to guide us in future decisions. Interestingly, it is just as much about what we don’t experience that can bring our mental models undone when the world changes around us.

Take for example the Australian business leader that was “humiliated” in front of a large audience when a strong diversity trainer called him on stage with a Torres Strait Islander woman. In turn, he was shown that the woman on stage struggled in life due to personal characteristics he didn’t share and that he had never even thought about them, either positively or negatively.

This often manifests in an attitude that there isn’t a problem in need of fixing and even minorities are not immune. At a Women in Airports Breakfast held a couple of years ago, the panelists, three very successful airport leaders, were asked about pay disparity between men and women. In response, all three stated that they had never had a problem with their own remuneration and, in the aggregate, dismissed the questioner's concerns. Those familiar with this issue will be able to point to research that shows that "women, on average, earn less than men in virtually every single occupation for which there is sufficient earnings data for both men and women to calculate an earnings ratio".

The Challenge is to Challenge

So, if we accept that diversity is essential to future success and that we may be operating on unconscious biases, what can we do about it?

The answer is to challenge our decisions regarding our team. Obviously, this relates to selection decisions but it also includes the requirements we set for positions, the feedback we give our current team and the individuals we identify for development opportunities.

At first, it is worthwhile to just challenge your own decisions and choices. Ask yourself, why do I prefer Dave over Ramona? The answer might not even be that you have always had a man in that role. It could be that your childhood friend was named Dave or that your first ex-girlfriend was named Ramona**. Once you have identified any biases, you should be able to look past them.

In organisations actively promoting diversity, they may have implemented procedures designed to challenge potentially biased decisions. In some HR departments, they have been instructed to challenge essential requirements put forward by hiring managers. They are asking questions like why is a degree from particular colleges required and why do they require past experience with certain companies? And in other cases, job advertisements must pass an additional stage gate where an independent manager must review the content for potentially biased language.

In all these cases, the result of the challenge may be that nothing changes. Dave might be the best candidate for the position and that job might require a Stanford education with experience at a management consulting company. The point is that these decisions were challenged and, over time, a more inclusive bias will become the norm.

From Decisions to Concepts

The natural progression from challenging decisions is to begin to examine the concepts behind these decisions. For example, if we go back to Dave and Ramona and our essential requirements for their job, through the process of challenging these decisions, we might end up challenging the concept of “best candidate for the position”.

Let's say that Dave is better at the job. You can pick the measure by which this assessment is made, past performance, advanced qualifications, original research that has progressed humankind’s understanding of the field, but the assumption is that he is better. If selected, Dave will become a part of your team and a social dynamic now comes into play. How will Dave contribute to the team environment as compared to Ramona? Are we even considering this as part of the selection process?

In the graph below, we are assuming that Dave is “better” at doing the job and that Ramona is “better” in terms of contributing to the team. What constitutes “better” now depends on the role and the dynamics of the existing and even future team. This picture is not a rule for assessing men versus women, experience versus new ideas, or Anglo-Celtic versus Latin heritage, it’s just a hypothetical example.

Airport People Power: Diversity Graph

The graph offers three ways of comparing the two of them and coming to a decision of which to select for the role in your team. The left hand version could be described as the “best person for the job” approach and, interestingly, could be considered the most anti-discriminatory. It doesn’t consider gender, age or ethnicity at all. The middle graph considers the potential impact of diversity on the team and considers it in tandem with the traditional approach. Maybe Ramona becomes the “better” choice and maybe Dave is still your preferred candidate. On the right hand side, the technical aspects are reduced to the minimum requirements, a simple tick of the “can they do the job” box with the diversity score added to the base. Here Ramona is the clear choice because of what she may add to the team.

Which approach to take is always the choice of the hiring manager but at least now they might be challenging their approach within the context of what they want to achieve. If diversity is important to them they’ll tend to the middle or right. If performance is important to them, where might they go?

If there is one thing that is true for this field of business, is that discussion is necessary. If we are to do diversity “right”, we need to bring in a range of points of view. To that end, we welcome your comments and feedback below.


* Some very introspective or mindful people may have explored all their own feelings to establish their biases but I would consider these people relatively rare.

** After writing this, I became completely aware of how biased towards a male reader this article is. Perhaps this is because this is the audience that needs to read this, or that I perceive that female leaders are under represented in the airport sector generally or that I am a closet misogynist - I hope its not the latter.

Photo: Header by Timon Studler/Unsplash, graph by author