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The workplace: Addressing racial discrimination & promoting diversity

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Presentation by Mandana Zarrehparvar, Danish Institute for Human Rights

panel: “The workplace: Addressing racial discrimination & promoting diversity”

United Nations, Geneva, 22 April 2009
The Diversity Project was formed within the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) in 2003. It builds on our status as a specialised body on equal treatment and it strives to identify and address challenges in the integration of equal treatment into the business practice. The Diversity Project was founded with the aim of helping and motivating companies to create a work environment that values difference and operates in a fair and non-discriminatory way. You could say we help companies to incorporate the external diversity of the society into the internal culture of the company. This covers all forms of diversity, including religion, age and sexual orientation, but ethnic discrimination is a major issue in Denmark, and forms the foundation for much of our work.

Messages: What do we communicate?
Whenever dealing with any kind of company, the first question we expect is ‘What’s in it for me?’
The ‘business case’ answer is that companies with high levels of openness and flexibility simply perform better in the marketplace. They have higher morale, and foster innovation in their internal cultures. Open, flexible companies allow their employees to bring their personal experiences to work every day. This both exposes workers to experiences of diversity and allows champions to emerge.

  • ‘The diversity is there’

This is the reality-check argument. European workplaces, labour markets and economies are becoming more diverse by the day. That is the fact. Companies can either respond to these changes and ultimately benefit from them, or they can ignore it and pretend their employees and customers to stay the same over the next 20 years.

One of the companies we’ve worked with, The Postal Service in Copenhagen, had problems both hiring and retaining employees of minority ethnic backgrounds, for example. The company initiated an 18-month mentorship program, where new employees were paired up with experienced workers for orientation and skills development.
This embedded ethnic diversity messages, but more importantly, it created champions both among new employees and experienced workers. Each worker was given a personal experience of collaborating with someone of a different background. This experience can be much more effective than top-down initiatives for fostering understanding and empathy.

  • ‘Happy employees are productive employees’

One of the primary ways that ethnic discrimination presents itself within a company is through interpersonal conflicts, clique behaviour and social exclusion among employees. All of these practices are bad for worker morale, and ultimately bad for productivity. It often takes a champion in the upper levels of management to make a real effort to create a peaceful, productive environment.

One of the companies we’ve worked with is the Parking Service in Copenhagen. The Parking Service found declining worker satisfaction as their workforce diversified. Parking officers work in pairs, and the company discovered that many ethnic Danish employees preferred to work with other ethnic Danes.
The director of the company decided to address this issue directly, and began a program to allow employees to talk about their challenges, whether they were ethnic Danes or of ethnic minority backgrounds. He also initiated management training and conflict resolution workshops. A year later, surveys of ethnic minority and newly hired workers showed much higher satisfaction, and conflicts about pairing had declined.

  • ‘Diversity = innovation’

One thing we find with companies that don’t actively manage workplace diversity is that employees of various backgrounds enter the company and simply assimilate. They adopt the corporate culture and values, and put aside the individual characteristics and perspective that could make their contribution to the workplace unique. We say that the ‘melting pot’ is good, but the ‘Fruit salad’ is better. In a melting pot, everything becomes the same. In a fruit salad, all the parts are mixed together, but every piece keeps its own shape, characteristics and contribution.

Tools: How do we communicate?
How does DIHR communicate these messages, both to companies and the wider public.

We have developed a compliance assessment tool that companies can use to check their performance against Danish and European anti-discrimination law. This is a booklet with true-or-false statements on equal treatment in regard to all phases of employment, and it is based directly on the EU Race and Employment directives.

It gives companies a kind of ‘map’ of their compliance with law. The tool also includes examples from EU and Danish cases, so company managers can see how these issues play out in the real world.

One way we teach diversity within companies is with a toolbox called the Wheel of Diversity. The toolbox consist of 40 concrete tools and checklists for managers to implement diversity practices all the way through the business cycle, from placing a job advertisement to promotion policies and handling of conflicts. The tools are unique in the way that they address very concrete situations in a managers everyday life and guide the manager to develop her or his own diversity competencies.

We administer the toolbox to companies through training and workshops with managers. Our goal is to embed the tool throughout the company, so the procedures from the boardroom to the mailroom reflect a commitment to diversity.

  • MIA Award

Since 2004, the Diversity Project has given an annual diversity award to companies that excel in creating a non-discriminatory and diverse workplace. M.I.A. stands for ‘Diversity in the Workplace’ in Danish. Companies nominate themselves and a panel of judges including the Danish industry confederation, labour union representatives and human rights experts decide the winners.

The project has been a huge success. The award has been given out by Denmark’s crown princess, and is covered by hundreds of articles in the Danish media. The awards ceremony is the yearly meeting place for frontrunner companies in this field and it always includes presentations by international diversity experts . Our messages to the media stress the issue of discrimination in Denmark and creating an open dialogue around these issues. The winning companies are through printed best practice material.
We try to carry the momentum of the MIA Award throughout the year, so we also air annual media campaign around the issue of diversity, stressing some of the same issues in TV spots, postcards and information material.

  • Diversity Lab

Another one of our projects brings together Danish companies to network and share practices and experiences with diversity. The goal is to move practices to the next level within companies, by supporting the champions within companies to take their knowledge and practices to the next level.

The Diversity Lab member companies are 15 highly different companies and organizations that meet every two months to experiment with different ways in which to increase retain and leverage diversity among employees. Every participating organization is participating with three people: one top-management ambassador who ensures implementation of learning; one department manager, who will be experimenting and testing a new diversity-tool or method in his / her department between Diversity Lab meetings; and one HR support person, who will assist and support the department manager in each of these experiments. Most of our meetings are in Copenhagen, but each year we also take the whole group to London to learn from experiences in the UK

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