We all know that diversity in teams allows them to perform better when there is a sense of inclusion and belonging. This is mostly because every human being is unique and therefore brings unique individual perspectives which emanate from different characteristics, backgrounds, values, skills and experiences. This in turn enhances creativity and innovation. Research has also shown that diverse work teams provide a competitive advantage which results in better profits.

The Employment Equity Act and our Constitution promote a diverse working environment by putting an obligation on employers to not unfairly discriminate against any employees on either prohibited or arbitrary grounds.

When conducting a due diligence proceedings on the representativeness of the employment equity steering committee, most employers ensure that the committee represents designated and non-designated groups, all occupational levels and all workplaces. But doesn’t workplace diversity mean much more than that?

The Employment Equity Act specifies that discriminating against an employee on the basis of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, ethnic social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion and HIV status is prohibited.

It is well worth noting that diversity and inclusion go way beyond race and gender.

So, if you consider the aforementioned prohibited grounds:

  • How informed is your committee on these aspects that can often become a barrier to workplace inclusion and can also have a significant impact on individual performance?
  • To what extent are issues of age, marital status, religion, sexual orientation and gender barriers towards workplace inclusion and belonging in your workplace?
  • How tolerant are other employees when they deal with their colleagues’ seemingly “different” cultures, beliefs, sexual orientation and transgender statuses?
  • If employment equity steering committee members cannot personally relate to at least these key aspects, then they should explore other avenues to gain a better understanding of the workplace experiences of the employees they represent at this forum.

While diversity and inclusion training should be the first step for the committee, as well as diversity and inclusion awareness sessions for all employees, establishing smaller focus groups – who represent identified areas of diversity and can keep the committee informed on special events and critical aspects – will also be valuable.

This can also be augmented by establishing open channels of communication (anonymous ballot boxes and online surveys can both work well) which will provide employees with a platform to informally share information on their own personal experiences in the workplace, from their unique perspectives.

A good case in point is Eid al-Fitr, a religious holiday that is celebrated by Muslims worldwide and which marks the end of the month-long fasting of Ramadan. This year it began in the evening of 12 May and ended in the evening of 13 May 2021. Coincidently, 13 May 2021 was also the Day of Ascension, which is a very important holy day for Christians, who commemorate the ascension of Jesus on this day.

Neither of these days appears on the public holiday schedule of South Africa, but it still remains an important day. How did you treat these days in your workplace?

If you totally ignored it, and at least you were consistent, if you only recognised one of them and ignored the other, you may have unintentionally discriminated against some of your employees.

If diversity matters, hearing the voice of the diverse workforce matters even more. And then, acting appropriately upon what you hear, matters the most.

Please do get in touch with me, on [email protected] if you have any HR-related matters in your organisation that you need assistance with.

Kind regards,

Marianne Gradwell.