Equality, diversity and inclusion: Let’s make it discussable

diverse

As HQN relaunches its Equality and Diversity Network, Colin Heyman, the new lead for the exchange,  explains why it remains such an important consideration for the housing sector.

I’m delighted to have been invited to facilitate the HQN Equality and Diversity Exchange. I thought I’d start by telling you a bit about my background and where I’m coming from in terms of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI).

I work for a very small consultancy called Maine-stream that has worked in the field of both EDI, and leadership, for over 25 years. I’ve worked with a lot of different organisations: for example housing associations, local authorities, arts organisations, universities, the third sector, and small private companies.

You’ll see from this that I am not a housing expert, although having worked with a lot of different associations over the years I have some understanding of the sector. I hope that my expertise and somewhat external perspective can help you to move forward in your EDI practice.

On a more personal note, although I grew up in London, I live in Cardiff. I’ve been based in Wales for over 30 years now and love it here, partly because I love walking so it’s good to be close to the hills.

Some perspectives on equality and diversity

This is a case study I often use when carrying out training; it’s one of my favourites because it often leads to much discussion. I’m going to refer back to it as I talk more about where I’m coming from.

You are a manager in a residential care home. A new resident under your care comes to you and states that she doesn’t want a new care assistant to look after her. Although she doesn’t say so explicitly it is clear that it is because the care assistant is openly gay.

What is your course of action?

I’d suggest that you take a few moments to think about your reaction to this case study and what you would do in this situation; perhaps jot down a few things, before reading on.

Relationships between people

Sometimes people are surprised by the combination in my work on leadership and diversity, but for me there is a large overlap. That’s because I see diversity (and leadership) being played out in moment to moment relationships between people.

Policies, strategies and projects are all important, but what it comes down to a lot of the time is how I am, as a housing officer, for example, with a colleague or a tenant. And that is the side of leadership I work on, too: the interpersonal relationships – the interactions between people that, for me, are crucial in enabling people to be ‘good’ leaders.

In the case study, your existing relationship with both resident and carer, and how you are with both of them whilst you resolve the situation are crucial.

There is not always a right answer

I think one of the things we haven’t done well as an equality and diversity community over the last 40 years is to be very prescriptive about what’s right and what’s wrong – and generally give the impression that when it comes to these issues you MUST get it right and if you don’t you’re probably a bad person. I caricature a little but not much.

Yes, there are certain actions and words which are clearly not appropriate. But, just as often, it seems to me the path ahead is not always clear. Take the case study example above. In this situation you are balancing the rights of the resident in her own home with the rights of the employee, your duty of care to both of them.

It’s not easy and in different examples of the above situation you might do different things or come to a different conclusion.

So, it’s got to be discussable

One of the effects of the prescriptive approach I mentioned above is that many people are afraid to talk about EDI because they may say the wrong thing – treading on eggshells. I believe that if we are to improve our diversity practice in our organisations, then, like with anything else, we need to be able to discuss it.

So, there needs to be a culture where people can make mistakes, ask questions, argue, without being castigated; an atmosphere where people can learn. Where, in the case study, you can talk to colleagues and they have different views and can argue for them and between you, you can come to a decision about the best way forward.

Challenging

So, it’s very important, if we are to make it discussable, to challenge in a way that enables discussion rather than shuts it down. I think its very, very important that we challenge behaviour that we don’t agree with (it doesn’t happen enough), and I also think it is best (most of the time) to do it in a questioning way rather than a telling off way.

As I often say, if someone does something you don’t agree with, why should they listen to you if you don’t listen to them first?

It’s part of everyday work

Too often EDI is an afterthought. It can go something like this:

“Let’s produce some new promotional material.”

“Well, it’s almost finished now – let’s do a final check… Oh yes, what about diversity? Diversity of images? Wording?”

“Bit late to do anything about that now…”

Instead of thinking at the beginning ‘what is our strategy around diversity?’ how can we ensure that this leaflet is in line with that? How can we ensure that the images and wording help us reach groups who are under-represented at the moment? And so on.

And finally

What’s the answer to the case study? Rather than an answer – as I said above you might do different things in different situations – these are some of the points I make:

  • As the manager, you have to balance your duty of care to the resident in her home and your duty of care to your gay employee
  • It’s important to talk to your employee about the situation. Does he want to show the resident that gay men don’t fit her stereotype (whatever that is) – or does he get enough stuff about being gay outside and not wish to have to fight it at work as well? His views should be part of the equation
  • What might be the consequences if you accept the resident’s point of view and agree not to have the gay man care for her? Possible consequences are:
    • She tells everyone what’s happened and other residents get the idea (“I don’t want her cos she’s coloured (sic) ….”) and so on
    • The carer gets a narrower experience as only a small range of residents are content to have him as their carer
    • Other residents may be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – and when they hear about the incident, they feel less safe in their home

And, yes, before you do anything, do see what the policies of the home say, for example, about what say residents have in who their carer is.

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Our Equality and Diversity Network’s first Best Practice Group is being held this month in Birmingham. Click here to book your place (Network members go free!).

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