By Dr Juliet E. Kele, Research Fellow In HRM
Department of Marketing and Lloyds Centre for Responsible Business, University of Birmingham
The US TV channel Hallmark, known for its family-friendly movies, has come under criticism for its decision to withdraw an advertisement for a wedding planning website featuring a same-sex couple. The company have since apologised to the LGBTQ+ community and have reinstated the advert. The initial criticism about the advert came from One Million Mums, a division of the staunch Catholic American Family Association (AFA), which actively campaigns against LGBTQ+ rights.
Such exclusionary practices have been highlighted in research by Stonewall earlier this year: more than a third of LGBTQ+ staff feel that they need to hide their identity at work and nearly 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ people looking for work reported that they were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Similar discriminatory backlash followed over Tesco’s TV Christmas advert in 2017, which featured a Muslim family celebrating. To know that any individual, group or organisation is fighting against promoting human rights, of any kind, does not sound a 21st-century practice and one that should not be tolerated.
Research and practice show that there is a strong business case for providing a true representation of the rich diversity in our society. Employers gain benefits and competitive advantage through working proactively with workforce diversity. A diverse workforce is more likely to appeal to a wider proportion of the population, who may feel their needs will be better understood if they are represented. Similar thoughts were documented in a blog earlier this year following actions by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to prohibit traditional gender-role stereotypes in adverts.
Research from the Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business adds an interesting angle to the diversity debate. Findings reveal that diversity is most commonly viewed in terms of aesthetics and observable demographics. Many mention ethnicity and gender, age was notably absent. Organisations display images across marketing brochures and webpages of a visually-diverse workforce, to encourage the idea that their ethos is one of inclusivity and equality. These images are appealing to prospective employees and clients. However, evaluating diversity based on instantly recognisable traits, such as gender and ethnicity, ignores the less visible traits of diversity of character, personality, attitudes and values. These overlooked traits are often those which offer the greatest competitive advantage.
Despite universal advocacy of the business case for workplace diversity, HRM policies and procedures do not always reflect this mind-set, with only a minimal commitment often present to ensure legal compliance. The concept of Aesthetic Diversity exposes the focus upon aesthetics and demographics – primarily ethnicity and gender – when defining and implementing diversity in companies. Broadening the accepted definition of ‘diversity’ could increase opportunities and possibilities for organisations worldwide.
Another blog from earlier this year emphasised that Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) are continuous processes and require proactive engagement, rather than simply paying lip service and resorting to a tick-box exercise, through either adverts or minimal organisational practices, to increase numbers. Everyone experiences the world in a different way and it’s important to bring as many of those experiences as possible into business. This is particularly important given growing recognition of the creativity of those with neurodiversity (e.g. autistic spectrum). The evidence is there: discrimination, conscious or unconscious, will cost business.
Advertisements, branding and marketing are one thing. It’s quite another when organisations put their imagery into practice and are committed to embracing diversity and inclusion throughout the workplace, supporting this with the necessary strategies and policies.