SA workplace diversity, equity, under the spotlight

South Africa has not yet optimised diversity in a way that can truly help leverage and improve the quality of work currently being produced by the country. This is according to Marius Meyer, Chief Executive Officer of SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), who was speaking at the inaugural Celebrating Diversity Conference, which was held in Johannesburg on Tuesday, 17 September.

He said that if every single employee in a company can achieve their optimum potential and is able to deliver their best work for an organisation, profits are likely to double. “There are many people who have negative feelings or don’t see the value of diversity, and this has to change if we really want to get diversity into profits,” says Meyer.

The conference, held in association with SABPP, aims to highlight the power of true diversity within the public and private sector, going beyond that of race, gender and age, and details how diversity, if properly managed, can provide a business with that much sought after competitive edge.

Meyer says that South Africa has some of the best employment equity laws in the world and that this is not to be blamed when discussing South Africa’s diversity levels. “Mirrored on the Canadian and United Kingdom’s employment equity model, we have generated the best piece of employment equity legislation.

“There is nothing wrong with the law; the law does not need to change. What is wrong however, is the quality of the practices and the support of the applicants. Over the last 20 years, it is not the law that has failed; it is us as HR managers and CEOs of companies that have failed the implementation of employment equity.”

Part of the problem is the fact that HR practitioners do not always possess the right competencies to drive professional HR practices. For this reason, the recent South Africa HR competency model was developed to assist HR managers, says Meyer.

The model, developed locally amongst Human Resources (HR) manages, sets the benchmark for HR professionalism in the modern South African work environment. “If we don’t get HR professionalism right, we will sit with the exactly the same employment equity figures for an additional 20 years. Employment Equity is a wonderful opportunity for us to really embrace true diversity and help us achieve the type of targets we should be achieving when it comes to the South Africa workforce.

Also speaking at the conference was Barbara Watson, Chief Director Diversity Management for the Department of Public Service and Administration, who said that when discussing the Employment Equity Act, focus is often put on the numbers rather than the section that deals with substantive equality, which is essentially what the act was meant to achieve.

“In any workplace there is a manifestation of all kinds of differences – some of which are obvious to see, whilst some not so obvious. These differences can be related to education, marital status, age, sex, race, height, size, colour, religion, disability, ethnicity, etc. and can also influence the way people behave, feel, act, work, react to things and perceive things which leads to the ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ thinking.

“This absolute way of seeing things often gives rise to stereotypes of racism, sexism, ageism and manifest in some form of discrimination in the workplace, which in return affects morale, productivity and staff retention. If unchecked, it could also lead to recruitment of ‘in-group’ members only, which is an unfair labour practice.”

The Genesis of Difference and the Business Case for Embracing Diversity breakaway session highlighted that at the heart of any diversity issue, is the question of power. Facilitator for the panel, Lindiwe Zikhali, head of transformation and regulatory affairs at Anglo American says that, “Transformation is a challenging process. It can require people to change what they are familiar with: their work environments, the way they do things and their attitudes and behaviours. For as long as these challenges persist, we recognise that we need to apply our collective thinking to innovative and sustainable solutions.”

Prof Melissa Steyn, best known for her work on whiteness and white identify in post-apartheid South Africa, formed part of the panel for the session. “Differences are often just differences, nothing more or nothing less than that, but once power starts operating on it and constructing differences, it is as if something really matters. When talking about managing diversity, what we really are doing is working into those power relations and trying to shift power relations,” says Steyn.

Diversity Management specifies how differences should be harnessed in a way that contributes positively to the goals of the organisation and / or department, says Watson. “It is how we bring together different groups to create equity, and in the process harness the power of the different talents and perspectives each group brings to achieve organisational goals.

“Valuing diversity is not a denial of differences but rather, an act of embracing them and recognising these differences as integral parts that are equally valid and having something to contribute to the organisation,” concludes Watson.

This is an unedited version of a piece distributed as media release by SABPP.

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