27 September 2023

The how and why of building a diverse workforce

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UniSA *Professor Carol Kulik’s advice for line managers on how they can build a diverse workforce without a heap of extra stress or fuss

What do line managers have to do with diversity and inclusion? The short answer is: Everything, writes UniSA Professor Carol Kulik.

When we think about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) we usually think of the large-scale top-down initiatives that are designed to eliminate bias across the organisation. But employees’ experiences of being in a diverse workforce depend heavily on the behaviour of their line managers.

Today’s line managers have more responsibility, smaller budgets, and less job security than the generations of managers who have gone before them. They oversee staff who work remotely, on flexible work schedules, and in hybrid-work arrangements.

They are expected to protect employees’ mental health and wellbeing even as their employers downsize, restructure and raise performance standards.

Basically, line managers have a tough gig. And even the most well-intentioned line manager may struggle to be DEI-proactive when they’re already busy putting out fires.

I’m offering a few research-based “hot tips” for line managers, explaining how they can build a diverse workforce without a heap of extra stress or fuss.

I’m using gendered language, but you can trust the research on this: When workplaces are more inclusive for women, they become inclusive for everyone. “Thinking gender” is a great place to launch any DEI journey.

Diversity: Hiring new staff

Most managers are at least passingly familiar with the huge body of research demonstrating that decision-maker bias makes it more difficult for women to get access to jobs usually filled by men (think defense, high tech, or any senior management role in any sector). Companies have reviewed their job ads to eliminate discriminatory language. They’ve trained decision-makers to be alert to their own implicit gender biases.

The problem is that companies can spend so much time taking things out of job ads and warning decision-makers what not to do, they neglect the things that encourage women to apply in the first place! They continue to fuel an unproductive cycle: Only men apply, so only men are hired.

Hot tip: Emphasising company values in your recruitment process will attract more women to the job without discouraging men. The more specific, the better. Jobseekers are looking for evidence of your values in action.

Try highlighting the carbon footprint details that demonstrate your company’s commitment to the environment, the flexible work options that demonstrate commitment to employee well-being, or the “above and beyond” testimonials that demonstrate commitment to client service.

Equity: Coaching for employee performance

Companies are beginning to recognise the risks associated with gender pay gaps, and more firms are routinely conducting pay audits. But pay decisions arise out of organisational performance management systems, where inequities can be “baked in” and hard to dismantle.

Performance management isn’t a once-a-year formal task; it’s an ongoing cycle of continuous improvement. Line managers play a critical role as coaches, providing ongoing feedback (observations on employees’ past behaviour) alongside “feeding forward” to develop employees’ future behaviour. That’s where bias slips in.

Women receive more negative feedback from their managers than men do. Negative feedback is important, because employees can’t improve their performance without it. But women also receive less actionable feedback than men do, so they don’t know what to change. Further, line managers are more likely to attribute women’s good performance to luck rather than skills and ability – so women are less likely to be rewarded when they do succeed.

Hot tip: Try increasing the frequency of feedback you provide. Line managers sometimes worry they are overdoing feedback, but you can safely put that fear aside. Research demonstrates that daily and weekly feedback are particularly effective in improving performance, and there’s no evidence that employee performance is hurt by too much feedback.

When line managers deliver more frequent feedback, they have more opportunities to acknowledge (and reward) different kinds of performance. You might be more likely to notice the female employee who is a great team player or who is especially sensitive to a client’s needs.

Inclusion: Recognising employees’ unique contributions

Most companies have policies that focus on exclusion; they prohibit discrimination, harassment, and bullying. But an absence of exclusion doesn’t automatically lead to inclusion. Inclusion is about employees’ lived experience – whether they feel that they can be their authentic selves at work and are valued and respected members of the company.

Inclusion comes from the small things, things like being explicitly acknowledged for your unique contributions. But coworkers, clients, and other stakeholders may overlook or undervalue women’s contributions. Here’s an example that became ubiquitous during the COVID-19 pandemic: When health professionals layered personal protective equipment over generic scrubs that obscured badges and other professional status indicators, patients assumed that female health professionals were in support roles as nurses or physicians’ assistants – anything but a doctor.

Researchers have a term for this: role incredulity.

Hot tip: Try increasing the frequency with which you say “thank you” to employees – aiming for daily opportunities. Express gratitude in a way that focuses on the employee, not on you. “Thanks for taking time out of your day to do this” is a lot more affirming than “Thanks, this made my day less stressful.” And you can address role incredulity by explicitly highlighting employees’ credentials (using their professional title or organisational role) and their unique skills and responsibilities in ambiguous situations (like when you are introducing them to a new team or new clients).

The common denominator

DEI isn’t a “new” or “extra” task that line managers do on top of their day job. DEI is part-and-parcel of good people management.

Developing line managers’ DEI skills takes a little effort, but the organisational payoff is huge. Employees who feel valued and supported by their line managers display higher job performance and engage in more voluntary behaviours, such as helping coworkers or working overtime. They are also less likely to leave their employers, so managers spend less time recruiting and training new staff.

There’s also a payoff for line managers: Line managers who are good at the people bits of their jobs receive better performance evaluations, are promoted faster, and get larger salary increases. It’s a win-win!

*Carol T Kulik is a Bradley Distinguished Professor at the University of South Australia, UniSA Business and co-author of Human Resources for the Non-HR Manager (Routledge, 2023).

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