Are you guilty of 'assimilation bias'?

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'Assimilation bias' is something that we are all inherently guilty of, says a renowned diversity advocate – and it's likely to be detrimentally affecting business.

Mai Chen, managing director of Chen Palmer and author of the Superdiversity Stocktake, has said that companies that serve European New Zealanders and are staffed by European New Zealanders have an unsustainable business model. 

This is because as the nation’s ethnic demographic is changing so quickly, Chen suggested. The author of the ‘superdiversity’ report said that almost half of Auckland’s population are currently New Zealand Maori, Asian or Pacific Islanders.

She added that businesses needed to consider the fact that these groups were expected to make up more than half of New Zealand’s population by 2038.

“Businesses have been very focused on being gender diverse and only some of them are now turning their minds to ethnicity, but they really don't have a choice,” Chen said.

“We all have an assimilation bias, we all like to deal with people who look like us and who are like us, so if the client base or customer base is transforming, you'll understand that some of those customers would like to be dealt with by service reps, advisers and staff who come from similar backgrounds to them.

“The key thing for businesses is to leverage off ethnicity as a market advantage.”

The report outlined several advantages of having an ethnically diverse workplace, including that they provide access to a wider, more diverse customer base as well as a comprehension of multiple cultures and languages.

Another benefit that was noted in the report was that diversity opened businesses up to innovative ideas, alongside greater export potential through international contacts.

Chen emphasised that a number of Auckland-based companies were seeing positive outcomes from striving towards an ethnically diverse workforce.

Although diversity led to multiple business benefits, Chen said that there were barriers companies needed to deal with so that they could capitalise on the advantages.

“The message to business is this is about your bottom line,” Chen advised.

“It’s not about equity, it’s not about fairness, it’s just about focusing on where your customers are from and what they want.”

HRM spoke to Bev Cassidy-Mackenzie, CEO of the Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO) Trust about how employers should be responding to New Zealand’s growing diversity.

“In the past year we have spent time with more than 1200 New Zealand businesses, through our events, workshops, seminars and Diversity Awards,” she said.

“From the conversations we’ve had we are really confident that the vast majority of New Zealand businesses are very aware of the demographic changes and they are equally aware of the need to reflect these changes in their workplaces.

“Whether you call it diversity or superdiversity, the critical factor is providing education and support for these businesses so they know how to make meaningful changes that will ensure their workplaces are geared to embrace difference and to benefit from it.”
 
Cassidy-Mackenzie told HRM that the EEO Trust believes it is misleading to set this up as a “radical change” in New Zealand’s workplaces.
 
“We have seen time and time again that the most successful diversity policies come from employers and employees talking to each other about what they need,” she explained.
 
“Successful policies also come from a willingness on the part of employers to take on training to address issues like ‘unconscious bias’.
 
“We have also observed that to successfully support diversity in their workplaces, employers – and their teams – need to commit to tracking their progress and to making ongoing changes to improve their policies and practices.
 
“Creating diverse, productive workplaces is not about radical shifts, it is about a sustained commitment to building a work environment and a team culture that embraces differences and that recognises the unique opportunities presented by New Zealand’s increasingly diverse society.”

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