Aligning diversity and discrimination

Dr. Thomas Tang, Executive Director of GIFT, moderated a panel discussion on diversity and discrimination at CSR Asia’s Conference held in Hong Kong at the Hotel Nikko on 1-2 November 2007. On the panel were two leading experts, Kay McArdle from Goldman Sachs and Anna Wu, former Legislative Councillor and ex-head of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

The talk was an interesting juxtaposition of two topics – diversity (which is good and healthy) and discrimination (which is in general bad). The challenge was to align these two areas, which are related in many ways, into a meaningful discourse with CSR implications.

Ms. McArdle provided the audience with a keen insight as to what Goldman’s were doing to encourage diversity in their workforce. She presented a clear business-driven case which included improved staff relations, ways to retain staff and better customer relationship management. As aptly put, “the difference makes the difference”. Goldman’s are one of many large corporations that provide diversity training for their staff and, importantly, link this to corporate performance.

In other words, if you don’t carry out the right level of ‘diversity hires’ – you risk incurring the wrath of the diversity team, which could impact on your compensation.

Ms. Wu took a more singular line on discrimination. Based on her experiences at the Equal Opportunities Commission, she spoke about the rights of individuals and access to the community that many societies sometimes overlook to suit convenient purposes.

Ms. Wu used the opportunity to talk about issues of gender discrimination, which is in her opinion prevalent in Hong Kong using examples of societies in the New Territories where females clearly do not enjoy the same status as males. Education and digital divides highlighted these differences acutely. An entertaining speaker, Ms. Wu further used her oratory skills as a former lawyer to regale the audience with well chosen anecdotes from her days running the Commission and reminding the Hong Kong Government to do what they said they were going to do.

Questions from the floor – which included the risks of positive discrimination from overzealous diversity policies, China labour laws addressing workplace discrimination, bottlenecks in diversity training and common diversity ‘negativities’ - demonstrated the audience’s interest in this principled debate, where answers were subjective and possessed a tendency to be couched in shades of grey.

The final word went to the moderator who posed the question, “what can small businesses do about diversity and discrimination?”

Ms. McArdle: “Have the right architecture in place to build on”.
Ms. Wu: “Very much depends on the personal passion of a senior leader”.

A good and high note to end on.