Food for thought on the diversity menu

11th November 2021 Posted by

Blog by Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Human Resources and Health and Safety Officer, SUEZ recycling and recovery UK.

We have addressed a diverse range of thought-provoking topics at our weekly Wellness for All webinars over the last 18 months, including nutrition and health. Last week we took a bigger bite and hosted a special webinar ‘cook-a-long’ devoted to Indian cuisine.

Why? It’s not that SUEZ people are more likely to be foodies than the rest of the working population, as far as I know. Wednesday marked the start of Diwali – the ‘festival of lights’ celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and some Buddhists – and we wanted to mark this important cultural event in the calendar. We have employees with a South Asian family background, but we also want to raise cultural awareness and understanding more generally.

Our co-host on the day was Kumud Ghandhi, who is a celebrity chef with a difference. After graduating from the London School of Economics, Kumud worked for the Bank of England and in international finance, where she was a passionate advocate of inclusion and diversity.

As a mother with two young children, she left the corporate world to study food science, another passion, before founding The Cooking Academy.

Nicknamed ‘the Spice Queen’, Kumud has cooked for Nelson Mandela, the Prince of Wales, and other global figures, including Madonna. And for SUEZ, she served up a delightful menu of traditional recipes, culinary tips, and insights into the meaning and significance of Diwali. Celebrating this festival involves cooking and sharing special meals with family and friends – like most seasonal occasions and ‘feast’ days across all cultures.

Sharing food is something we can all relate to. The social nature of food, curiosity around it and enjoyment of it, is something which I believe can bring us closer together as people. Which is why we’re putting food on our I&D menu.

I’ve described our inclusion and diversity (I&D) journey in a previous post. Among other initiatives, we set up an I&D Network. This is a group of employees who volunteer as I&D Ambassadors, talk to colleagues and promote open discussion and understanding of our differences – which may define us as individuals, but should not separate us.

The Network is guided by eight behaviours we believe will help foster the inclusive environment we want for all employees. These behaviours revolve around being: authentic, self-aware, a listener, genuine, fair, empathetic, sensitive to others’ differences, and a change agent.

We already have a Veterans Network – providing mutual support to employees who previously served in the armed forces or are reservists – and a thriving women’s network. The next stage is the launch of three more I&D networks relating to LGBTQI+, disabilities and ethnicity.

Whilst our HR function, particularly our Employee Experience team, promotes and participates in these networks, our philosophy is that our volunteers should help set the agenda and tell us as an employer what we could do better. So, it’s another part of the listening exercise that began when our Board members held focus group meetings with our people from minority groups to ask them to describe their lived experience, in and outside work, earlier this year.

The company’s leaders have made their commitment clear by making unconscious bias training mandatory for all employees, not just line managers. This kind of training has been the target of some negative media coverage, with some questioning whether it has any lasting value – a criticism that can be levelled at many courses that are badly designed or delivered. The same is probably true of cases where unconscious bias training has been said to reinforce rather than dismantle stereotypes in people’s minds. Our experience so far has been very positive. Colleagues have described how it has opened their eyes, so they now question assumptions they hadn’t realised they were making.

Such cultural and self-awareness are essential for fairness and equality at work too; equal opportunities policies alone cannot make discrimination disappear. But HR policy does need to be fully informed to be effective. As well as encouraging employees to volunteer information on their ethnicity (and sexual orientation, disabilities, etc) and managing our gender pay, we are currently examining ethnicity pay.

As well as being an issue of equity – promoting inclusion and diversity is the right thing to do – there are many other benefits. It’s not viable to expect people to give of their best if they don’t feel that they belong. So, I&D is important for the motivation and morale of employees from any minority.

We also weaken our own businesses if we don’t attract and retain good people from across all of society and the communities we serve. This has always been the case, but it’s becoming clearer to a lot of companies in a tight labour market, with skills shortages in many roles – in our sector, for example, HGV drivers, materials analysts and plant engineers.

I’ve also spoken before of the diversity dividend for business. Research shows that ethnic diversity delivers an even bigger boost to innovation and financial performance than a healthy gender balance. McKinsey studied 1,000 companies in 12 countries and found that those with the most ethnically diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to outperform their peers on profitability. Research by the Wall Street Journal concluded that the 20 most diverse companies in the S&P index of the 500 biggest in the US had better operating results and higher share values on average than the lowest-scoring firms.

Getting back to Diwali, we’ve recently extended our benefits platform – You@SUEZ (provided by Reward Gateway) – so that employees can send e-cards to colleagues. These might be birthday or season’s greetings, or simply a thank you. It’s been well received by our employees, and it’s great to see employees sending best wishes to colleagues who are celebrating Diwali. They will be able to do the same for Hannukah and other religious festivals.

And our cook-a-long has whetted our appetite for more. We’re asking our employees to share their favourite recipes for a SUEZ e-cookbook. This will not only include the recipes themselves but, more importantly, some background and/or family history on them. The aim is a cookbook in which we can celebrate and learn about the diversity of culture and continents through food.

Like a choice of foods in a healthy, balanced diet, diversity is part of the recipe for success in business.

I wish everyone celebrating it, a happy Diwali.

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