It is an industry buzz term though – and we try our darndest to steer clear of those. But issues around diversity in the workplace get a lot of airtime these days, so we wanted to lay down the facts.

When we refer to diversity in an HR sense, it means creating workplaces that are free from discrimination, bullying, harassment and victimisation. There are a number of laws in place across Australia that now make it illegal for a workplace to ignore, incite or tolerate these actions. In other words – it’s no longer acceptable to turn a blind eye.

Issues like bullying are not restricted to playgrounds or building sites. Some of the most damaging instances occur in a corporate setting and no, men are certainly not always the culprits. Often, bullying or harassment is the result of different perceptions about what is acceptable or normal. And, while it may not be deliberate, it’s never ok.

Some of the excuses bullies hide behind include: ‘But I was only mucking around’, ‘But I didn’t mean it that way,’ or the classic ‘But that’s the way I talk to everyone.’ None of which would hold up in a tribunal or commission.

Discrimination is another hot potato, for a whole range of reasons. Men and women’s roles – and society as a whole – have changed significantly, and there are laws in place now that reflect this cultural shift. Plus, we now live in a more multicultural society than ever before, which means that your employees will most likely come from a broad range of backgrounds. Today, 1 in 4 people were born overseas, and the 2006 Census reported that 3.1 million Australians (or 16% of population) spoke a language other than English at home. (A figure that is likely to increase once the 2011 Census results are released in June 2012).

The key is to recognise that the rich cultural, personal and social fabric of your employees can be your greatest strength – provided it is nurtured and fully embraced. To this end, diversity in the workplace should be underpinned by the following policies, which must be public and well promoted:

  1. Anti-Bullying  and Anti-Discrimination Policy
  2. Appropriate Workplace Behaviour Policy
  3. Grievance & Complaint Policy

The stakes are pretty high when it comes to these kinds of issues, so, as an employer, you need to be prepared to act. Failing to do so can not only have a negative impact on your company brand, but it can also cost you an arm and a leg. This is no laughing matter and serious fines can be issued, up to $943,000 for companies and $189,000 for individuals who fail to prevent or address Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) breaches in the workplace.

Also, under the newly passed Brodie’s Law, bullying (including cyber bullying) is now covered under criminal legislation. This means that if bullying is occurring in your workplace, instead of WorkSafe investigators arriving to conduct an investigation, you will be greeted by the police. Individuals found guilty will now face up to 10 years jail.

From a business standpoint, managing diversity also makes good sense, due to the fact that we operate in such a competitive global marketplace. Your ability to respond to increasingly diverse customers and markets is dependent upon understanding these customers, as well as your ability to learn about opportunities within new markets. To meet and exceed customer expectations, every business must develop and maintain a skilled, capable, committed and enthusiastic workforce drawn from a wide range of backgrounds, views and experiences.

As a business owner, your priority should be to engage, empower and lead by example – and take a zero tolerance stance when it comes to bad behaviour. If people step out of line, you need to act fast, otherwise it’s as good as condoning the behaviour. Providing positive feedback to staff is also extremely important.

So, how diverse is your workforce?

As we always say, there are simple, easy steps which can be taken to set your business on the right path. If you need advice or assistance with setting up a diversity-friendly workplace, please get in touch, or purchase a copy of our new eBook What is HR?.

Happy HR’ing

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