Diversity is lacking in Nigeria’s meeting rooms, and it’s bad for business

Nigeria has a diversity problem. We see it on our streets, in our schools and in our interactions on social media. We create silos where only our perspectives matter in any conversation. This is a troubling phenomenon, especially when it spreads into our workspaces, corrupting relationships and weakening the overall power of the company to deliver lush, original work or acknowledge when the work of others inspires us to improve on ours.

To tell a compelling story, companies must understand all the possible perspectives with which they are viewed by the intended audience. Even when it manufactures a product or offers a service to a specific demographic, there is often diversity within that demographic, and needs that must be met. A good example would be companies that produce sanitary products. While their broad demographic is women, in their products and messaging they must also consider the unique needs of women who have heavy flows or reproductive illnesses that make their periods erratic. They must consider Trans men who have periods and people who are dealing with illnesses that disrupt their reproductive cycles. Messaging that welcomes these many diverse experiences and perspectives can complete even the most straightforward brief.

Many companies seek to solve the problem of connecting their products to an audience by outsourcing the hard work of diversity to third party companies. They commission studies, and gather focus groups, who do a relatively good job of pointing out obvious problems with a narrative. But studies and focus groups are not dynamic, they are static and the data they provide for business often only reflects the limited worldviews of the chosen participants and the period in which these studies are conducted. Rather than a static impression, companies are learning they must embrace a dynamic, ongoing conversation that starts from the point of ideation. And the only way that can be achieved is if companies are more diverse, from top to bottom.

Companies in the past sought to hire homogenous teams, believing that the less friction there was between team members, the more successful the company would become. This was only partly true, a homogenous company would have less friction, but would also suffer from a paucity of ideas. Constructive dissent forces companies to weigh the integrity of, and motivations behind their decision-making and provides multiple points of view when they execute an idea or a project. It prevents stagnation and provides companies with contemporary perspectives of the evolving needs of diverse audiences.

To underscore the importance of diversity and inclusion to employees, a  Glassdoor  study indicates that 67% of job seekers consider workplace diversity an important factor when considering employment opportunities, and more than 50% of current employees want their workplace to do more to increase diversity.

So, how do companies solve the problem of diversity? They need to first understand the problem.

Beaming the searchlight on the challenges of workforce diversity in public sector management in Nigeria,  a study of 399 workers and public officials across eight different ministries  in the Ebonyi State Civil Service in 2017 revealed that many heads of organisations are not adequately trained on extra-compensatory measures which are subsumed to handle diversity that will foster unity and workforce integration. In many cases, civil servants are xenophobic to embrace workforce diversity due to fear and the perception of a possible value change.

A separate study  on the Nigerian public service sector conducted a year later advanced the call for workplace diversity to increase employee morale and improve employees’ drive to work more effectively and efficiently. The study reflected that diversity in leadership will allow managers to bring in new skills and strategies for achieving unity within their teams and also boost creativity.

A more  recent survey  of nine multinational companies (Coca-Cola, Guinness, MTN, Nestle, Julius Berger, Mobil Oil and Gas, Total Plc., Cadbury Plc., and Airtel Nigeria) show that the management of employees’ perception of marginalization, cultural diversity and conflict management can have significant positive influences on diversity management. The better employees’ perception of these issues are managed, the more effective the organisation’s diversity management, which would further improve teamwork and efficiency. More specifically, team building and group training were found to mediate between workforce diversity and organizational effectiveness.

Institutional structures to facilitate effective diversity management are either weak or non-existing in Nigeria. While the concept of diversity and inclusion are yet to be embraced by HR practitioners and business leaders – even in private organisations – several forward-looking organisations are investing in creating an inclusive workplace. In a study focused on what experts called ‘The Chevron Way,’ the global energy company’s diversity initiatives in Nigeria are clearly directed and coordinated by a full-time diversity consultant in the HR division, working with senior management sponsors, a diversity council, resource groups and diversity champions. The initiatives are mostly employee-driven, and everyone is fully encouraged to take an active part in fostering inclusion.

Bukonla Adebakin, the Chief Operations Officer at RED, and a veteran organizer for global non-profit organisations explain it this way: “A workplace that is not diverse will simply not have enough data points in their ideation process to come up with innovative products that either identify and solve the needs of a specific niche community or offer products to mass audiences with messaging that is calibrated to offend as few people as possible.” A diverse team will save managers the expensive costs of engaging outside help on each rung of the ideation to execution ladder and will enable quick pivots when an avoidable problem arises.

According to  This Way, diversity in the workplace must “encompass acceptance, respect and teamwork despite differences in race, age, gender, native language, political beliefs, religion, sexual orientation or communication.” This is a tall order for most Nigerian companies, for many reasons. The country is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country where successive conflicts across these lines have fostered distrust and outright hostility to people considered different or ‘other’. We see it in the conversations about women’s rights, the rights of minorities targeted for violent attacks, the rights of LGBT persons to live freely, in the treatment of people with disabilities or mental illness. A company must actively, almost aggressively seek to identify if it has a diversity problem within its ranks and work to correct it.

Four ways organisations can implement an effective diversity management strategy:

  1. Diversity has to be a top-down business necessity

An AHRI research study conducted in 2014 focused on the views and opinions on diversity at the workplace among Australian business leaders showed that the middle management – and even the leadership – were not completely welcoming and supportive of a diverse work group. With no leadership buy-in, spending time and resources on training and sensitisation will become totally useless, and almost impossible.

For example, through years of data iteration by RED – surveys, biannual reviews, and questionnaires – there is only one point where diversity can be improved in any company structure, and that is the hiring process. Every company’s hiring process reveals a lot about its motivations.

  1. Various elements of an inclusive workgroup should be clearly mapped for effective execution

A truly inclusive organisation should contain a diverse cross-section of employees who interact with one another. Such companies have clear track metrics on hiring, promotion, and composition of their workforce. Just like Chevron, a work model has to be created and faithfully implemented, with the behaviour modelled to employees by the company’s management.

Companies should conduct an assessment to determine their strengths and areas for improvements on diversity management. They should enhance mechanisms (e.g., discussion groups, staff meetings) for managers and employees to express their ideas and concerns on diversity and work environment issues. This provides an opportunity for consistent reviews through a monthly or bi-annual review system that asks all employees to review the founders and top management officers. Staff should also be encouraged to share personal requests with supervisors and allowed to speak up about any and every issue through a ‘radical transparency policy’.

  1. Sensitize the employees

Employee’s mindset and perception – even on marginalization and discrimination – can only be changed with training, education and awareness. HR leaders have to encourage training and conversations with current managers, staff and partners to develop an inclusive mindset, including the attitude that should be demonstrated while working with those from different backgrounds.

According to Olumide Makanjuola, human rights activist and director of programs, ISDAO: “Diversity at the workplace is understanding that every employee that walks into your workspace is not like the one you hired before and as such, we must inform and create a space that embraces and welcomes people as they are while fostering a more inclusive, creative and innovative workforce that is reflective of our human diversity.”

All of this seems very progressive and risky, but the numbers show that their bold approach to diversity is yielding results.

  1. Identify and address possible barriers to advancement opportunities

Former minister of finance, Professor Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has championed the idea that when bias is applied in favour of women in the workplace, it improves the chances of success for the entire organisation. “Investing in women is smart economics, and investing in girls, catching them upstream is even smarter economics”. The idea that diversity must be invested in with a clearly defined goal in mind, can be expanded to encompass a progressive response for all forms of diversity.

Diversity mapping will never work effectively, neither will the workforce deliver effectively if there are perceived issues with how employees envision the company’s growth and their own advancement. The company diversity planning has to be a long-term vision, where every member of this diverse workforce knows they have a strategic role to play in all the business hierarchies.

Three months ago, RED leveraged on the personal experiences of its Muslim team members and team members who had grown up immersed in the cultures of Nigeria’s Muslim North to lead a Maltina virtual activation during Ramadan, effectively positioning the brand as an ally of the faithful during the holy month. The campaign was impactful because the employees assigned to lead the project had personal motivations to ensure  it was successful, but also that it accurately reflected their religious beliefs and their oft-misunderstood culture.

For the team members on that project, a diversity strategy was not simply a cosmetic cover, but an opportunity to show that economic viability was possible within the boundaries of respectful representation. They had something to prove, and the platform to do it. We must work to ensure that all companies come to this epiphany, that all-encompassing investment in diversity can truly impact present and future profit lines.

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