This is the first in a series of three articles devoted to unpacking the benefits and necessity of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in 21st century communities and business.
Equality and diversity is the term used to talk about equal opportunities. Equality refers to the legal and moral requirement to ensure equal rights and treatment for all individuals which enables us to create a fairer society where everyone can fulfil their full potential. In the same way we like to be treated with respect and dignity in our homes, schools, workplace and countries at large, others like to receive the same treatment too, regardless of what our perceived differences are. It is everyone’s responsibility to address and protect people against unfair treatment, discrimination, harassment and victimisation.
Diversity focuses on recognising, understanding, respecting and valuing the differences and similarities we share with others. Despite the facility with which we can identify differences in age, ethnicity, belief or gender between ourselves and others, it does not stand to reason that we should discriminate against others on these basis. Most people, particularly those who are seasoned travellers, will have experienced the comfort of being an ordinary citizen at home, yet a complete alien in another country, more vulnerable and perhaps susceptible to discrimination.
Inclusion is thus, the conscious effort an individual, community or company makes to involve the often marginalised and under-represented groups in its environment for mutual benefit and growth.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) requires all countries, including Malaysia, to abide by it, and it includes equality provisions- Article 2 in particular- to prohibit discrimination on a wide range of grounds, such as race and ethnicity, age, gender, sex, religion and belief and disability, amongst others.
In Malaysia, the Federal Constitution of 1957, Article 8, covers equality before the law and non-discrimination laws. In addition, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999 -Article 4(4)- recognises the commitment to abide by the UDHR, although it stipulates that, where inconsistent with the Federal Constitution, the latter shall overrule.
Other United Nations Human Rights treaties encourage all countries to adopt universally recognised laws that protect the rights of all. Malaysia has committed itself to just three of the major United Nations human rights treaties, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). However, there are still many other areas where human rights violations still occur in the workplace and the community at large, which could be tackled through the adoption of more inclusive policies in the workplace.
There are many companies that seek to actively discriminate against individuals, women being regular victims of unfair treatment such as receiving lower salaries than men in the same role or being forced to sign clauses in their contracts which prevent them from becoming pregnant within a specific time period. Yet, contracts to male employees do not require them to put their reproductive rights in the hands of their employer. This difference in the way employers view and treat their staff and discriminate on the basis of gender helps us build a moral argument for the implementation of universal values at work that protect all from discrimination, not just gender-based but also aspects relating to any other areas of diversity.
Fair treatment contributes to an inclusive work environment in which individuals are valued for their skills and performance, as opposed to being judged for the similarities or differences in traits shared with the rest of the workforce. Fair treatment puts our humanity and rights, not profit, at the centre of a company’s ethos. Where values and integrity matters, this approach to business makes a company attractive to highly skilled employees of different backgrounds who look for employers with similar values to commit to. Attracting global talent and a diversified workforce also leads to better intercultural understanding that favours local and global business.
There are many advantages to be gained from operating an inclusive work environment and aligning a company’s vision and values with international standards of equality and diversity.
By virtue of a strong legal and moral code of ethics, companies empower their workforce, which in turn generates higher levels of satisfaction amongst staff, thus reducing staff turn-over, being able to retain talent and boosting business profits.
The best companies are constantly looking for ways to stay relevant and at the top of their industries. They know that reputation can make or break a brand and many international as well as local companies are developing strategies to compete in globalised markets and to stand out from the rest.
Equality, diversity and inclusion policies are the silent disruptor in today’s leading companies, much in the way that Uber and airbnb have disrupted the transport and hospitality industries. EDI provides a whole new approach to business and human interactions; it forces us out of our comfort zones and challenges our previous beliefs on what is acceptable practice at work by raising the standards at individual level. It holds us all accountable for the well-being of the group and finds solutions to problems that prevented us all (or some) from having equal opportunities at work. It puts businesses at the hands of its stakeholders which, incidentally, raises standards and increases profits. It is also important to remember that in the digital age, companies are scrutinised and criticised for their behaviour. All discrimination eventually comes to light and can have tremendous negative repercussions on business and profit.
We can see an excellent example of how equality, diversity and inclusion, or the lack of, can affect a whole industry in today’s Hollywood film industry. The recent scandals related to gender discrimination and sexual abuse have led to many in the industry losing their jobs and to a shift in the mentality of all those complicit. Individuals have started advocating for equality (of gender in this case), which has led to an empowerment of those who had been discriminated against in the past. The industry has suffered and those who will come on top are the ones to embrace fairness and equality of treatment in the workplace.
The impact of world-wide advocacy for EDI in business has been such that it has generated a global movement and brought to light similar abuses of power and breach of human rights in many other industries such as sports and communications across the world.
Malaysia, with its incredibly diverse population of local and foreign workers, is in a perfect position to introduce fairer policies in an effort to capitalise on the talent that exists as well as to inspire companies to become beacons of growth and leadership in the area of equality, diversity and inclusion.