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Workplace diversity and inclusion: What does it really mean?

October 12, 2021
By Dany Assaf

 (Andrey Popov/Adobe Stock)

Today, we are all engaged in efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in our workplaces to strengthen and enrich them for the future. 

Businesses that can consistently do that better than their competitors are often the most enduring, innovative, profitable — and can attract and retain the best talent. 

But towards that end, as our efforts evolve from identifying past shortcomings, the question turns to: Where do we go from here? 

Often, with complicated and intricate issues and the uncertainty surrounding them, it is helpful to pause and reflect on the actual goal of our efforts and work back from there. In the case of any organization and business, it is to ensure it genuinely includes the best people, provides them the best opportunities, and is equipped to fairly recognize and reward each one of us for our contribution. 

In other words, the objective is to always strive towards a more and more inclusive meritocracy. It is a critical obligation of every business leader to set the tone and champion this cause. 

With this touchstone in mind, we can best gear our efforts within a framework that benefits us all into the future.

Towards an inclusive meritocracy

How can we agree on the goal of an inclusive meritocracy? 

It remains the only framework for managing the opportunity and expectations of a diverse workforce because it draws upon our common human desire to be recognized for the value of our individual deeds and ideas. 

None of us, regardless of our background, wants to be stereotyped or pigeonholed. We all want a platform to be able to soar to unlimited heights and be respected as individuals. This desire is hardwired within us — we just seek platforms that will best allow us to rise. 

While we all accept no one of us is entitled to an outcome, we are all entitled to genuine opportunities in our workplaces and to be fairly recognized and rewarded for our work. We also all feel demoralized and disappointed when we see reward and recognition not based on effort and results. 

All of our efforts should be to ultimately create a more perfect meritocracy. Deviations from that otherwise represent some version of sectarianism where we reward one another based on some identity, rather than the value of our contribution. 

This has the potential to pit us against one another and threatens our very idea of work and reward in a market economy; additionally, it is not a sustainable framework. 

Fair competition is what we want in the market and the workplace. 

Cultivating maximum potential

When we think of the concept of diversity in the workplace and beyond, we should also think of the concept of potential — and more importantly, missed potential. 

Every business leader’s main responsibility is to make sure they can bring out the maximum potential from every component of their business, and we all know that people are always the most important part. 

Businesses that can consistently do that are also often the most innovative because diversity of thought, reasoning, and perspectives pushes us all and instils a rigour to remain on the cutting edge in this increasingly competitive world.

This is also a way to create environments with systems where the whole of efforts is always greater than its parts. 

Today, more than ever, leadership demands systematically identifying and dismantling any unjust, illogical, biased or unintended barriers to opportunity, to unlock the potential of those we lead. 

We also need to always keep our minds open to the fact that the best person to fill a job or role does not need to look like us, share our background or fulfil any of our preconceived notions of “fit” to honestly assess the requirements. 

Inclusive opportunity will bring the best ideas and outcomes in every organization for the benefit of the whole team. 

And that is something we can all agree on.

Dany Assaf is a partner with Torys LLP in Toronto, and the author of ‘Say Please and Thank You, and Stand in Line: One Man’s Story of What Makes Canada Special and How to Keep it that Way.’

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