The currency of trust: Why diversity and inclusion is good business

18 Sep, 2017

In a South Africa, still spatially and culturally divided, corporates provide a rare opportunity for diverse identities to engage with one another. In our businesses, different races, classes, genders, sexual orientations, languages, cultures and a plethora of other diversity dimensions come together under one roof in a rare moment of social convergence. As such, a company’s commitment to providing a workforce with social education could provide a rare opportunity for South Africans to meaningfully engage with one another and to have tough, open and honest conversations about issues that affect our lives and the lives of our compatriots. This is the company as a classroom, with a dedicated and trained facilitator and a curriculum used to socially educate, interrogate, upskill and train in the language of consciousness and compassion.

Diversity and inclusivity have long been peripheral organisational goals. Yet with seismic shifts in the South African social landscape and the growing fissures of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ narrative, it’s imperative businesses wake up to the fact that the mistrust among South Africans reflects the mistrust we find between colleagues, within our teams and with our leadership. While building trust on a national scale may seem like a daunting task, and perhaps outside of the scope of business, the investment into building trust among colleagues internally can have exponential benefits for participation within the workplace, as well as positively contribute to national social cohesion.

Much has been written and discussed about the formal education crisis facing South Africa. And while pertinent, it is time we properly and systematically unpack the social education crisis we face: the inability of South Africans to engage, empathise, understand or interact cross-culturally.

Most institutions from primary school through high school and university and to the corporate entity, expect the institution before it to have engaged South Africans in social education. That each institution before its own would have invested time and money into having honest conversations about our history, and its effects on race, gender, sexuality, privilege, inclusion and exclusion. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons most institutions don’t provide social education programmes for their constituencies – the incorrect presumption that this education has been provided by the institution before them. The consequence is a South African population still, in 2017, with low levels of cross-cultural competency, empathy and self-awareness. A distorted view of one’s own position in relation to ‘the other’.

One might sympathise with corporate South Africa at some level. Not only are they tasked with the survival and growth as commercial entities, now organisations are mandated, indeed required, to drive transformation, to educate, to train, to mentor and to create jobs. This sympathy, however, need not be extended for too long. To see corporate South Africa as a victim of legislation, regulation and political meddling is a mistake, especially if we were to stop and reimagine the powerful role corporate South African could play in a South African success story. For corporate South Africa not to invest in social education is a missed opportunity for business to reinvent itself as a social change agent, or corporate activist.

Corporate activism can’t fully be realised through initiatives like the CEO Sleepout, or an outing to paint an orphanage’s wall on Mandela Day. Instead it requires a reimagining of the role and purpose of corporate South Africa: a transition from more than just an isolated profit and growth driven machine, to the primary social educator of the South African workforce in the name of social cohesion and nation building.

South African firms often perceive diversity and inclusion training, dialogues and workshops as a ‘nice-to-have’ contributing little value to the sustainability of their business. Such a perception could not be more misguided. While creating social education classrooms at the workplace can positively affect the company’s bottom-line, it also prompts business to model good governance, moral leadership and positive social change strategies. It influences and encourages social interaction. It forces us to confront our blind-spot and engage authentically. To question our relative positions in society and what it is that each one of us can do in our own spheres of influence. The benefits of diversity and inclusion dialogues and workshops can extend much further than a tick-box exercise into the leading site of social education and the creation of much needed national social cohesion.

If we accept that our corporate spaces are a microcosm of the South African society, then changing the microcosm must affect the macrocosm. That creating inclusive working environments must serve to create an inclusive South African environment. Let our business leaders take up the challenge by meaningfully investing in social education programmes not only for the benefit of their scorecard, but for the health of our nation. If the workplace is still a primary site for cross-cultural engagement then let business take up the challenge to train engaged, empathetic, accountable, compassionate and humble personnel on top of technical achievers.. Let us be corporate activists in the struggle for social cohesion and use our mixed workspaces as classrooms for the holistic growth of our workforces’ formal, social and emotional skill set.