Does New Zealand need a new approach to diversity?

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In recent years, workplaces across New Zealand have been implementing initiatives to boost their diversity figures – but according to a globally leading diversity consultant, this approach is not the way forward. Instead, he advocates open communication, and learning to appreciate diversity on a broad spectrum. 

Philip Patston, Diversity New Zealand’s managing director, was recently named one of the top diversity consultants on the inaugural Global Diversity List.

In the first ever assessment of the world’s leading authorities on diversity, which was supported by The Economist, Patston was ranked in the top ten.

HRM spoke to Patston, who said that being named on the list was a big – but pleasant – surprise.

He explained that his work around diversity is based on getting away from ideas that focus solely on singular differences.

Patston believes that we need a fundamental shift in how we define diversity, by asking two simple questions in any situation:

How are we unique?

How are we common?

“Based on [traditional] ideas, organisations need to focus on hiring people from one or a few specific groups of to make a diverse workforce,” he said. “For example, many employers often talk about needing to onboard more women.

“However, my take is that diversity is about discovering how we are both unique and similar.”

Patston’s approach involves encouraging conversations around this rather than telling people what they need to be looking for to employ different kinds of people.

“Rather than having quotas in place, I encourage people to have these conversations in order to learn about the differences they have in their organisations,” Patston told HRM.  

“The perspective is about having new conversations and moving away from shaming people who do not fit a certain specification,” he added – and there’s an important discovery that often arises from these discussions.

“You may be in a room having conversations like this and realise that a perspective or voice is missing – and question how you can go about bringing that voice or perspective into the room.”

Patston added that it can be quite a difficult area to get right.

“I think we need to move on and be talking and communicating rather than simply making accusations that different people aren’t being represented,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s a useful way to promote diversity.”

Patston referred to an article he read recently in a national news outlet where diversity in the media was being discussed – but they were “talking only about gender”.

“When we have conversations about diversity, why do we often just focus on one characteristic?” he questioned.

He advised that employers need to have the courage to stimulate conversations about a holistic approach to diversity in order to determine which mindsets the workforce might be lacking.

“Using communication opportunities sensibly, leading questions you have to address are: ‘How do we see ourselves as an organisation? How do we honour the diversity that’s already there?’”

Patston added that within an organisation, there will always be things that workers have in common as well as things they do not – regardless of whether a specific target has been met.  

“The challenge, I guess, is to keep looking at ways to expand and build upon existing diversity,” he said.

“The more differences you have in a team, the more creative and dynamic and interesting that group’s going to be.”

Along with this, Patston works with people on how to deal with making mistakes, forgiveness, and having discussions to improve how they relate others from different backgrounds.

Patston has co-directed the Be. Leadership program for five years, as well as conducting his work with diversity around the country both on and offline.

He has also worked alongside other organisations advocating for diversity, including Rainbow Youth, and set up the not-for-profit organisations Diversityworks Trust, Ripple Trust, Manawanui inCharge and Auckland Disability Law.

For more information on Patston’s work, visit his website

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