Gagan Singh, CEO – Business, India & Chairperson Sri Lanka Operations, JLL India
There has been a growing buzz about promoting diversity, in particular gender diversity, in the corporate world and in the media, over the last 3-4 years. Companies are sharing their best practices, and even new start-ups are taking big steps in formulating policies designed to attract diverse talent to join them.
At the same time, governance in the corporate world is getting increasing focus and importance. The laws are being tightened, and the enforcement of compliance has also improved. This is obviously a good thing.
For diversity to grow, a strong ethics program is an absolute must. Women need safe working environments, but the need for ethics everywhere is much larger than just for taking care of gender diversity. Minorities and differently-abled people also need working environments where they are not harassed and treated badly.
It is imperative that organisations go beyond an attractive ethics policy on paper. They must be seen to be actually implementing it; transparently, and with a zero-tolerance approach to violations, especially when it comes to the women workforce.
This is easier said than done for several reasons:
- Women – and in fact members of any minority group – are usually hesitant to speak up because of possible repercussions. Though this should in no way reflect the ground realities of their position, they are often so grateful to have a job that they don’t want to upset the apple cart, attract attention to themselves and risk being misunderstood, blamed in any way risk losing their jobs.
- With high attrition rates and growth, a large part of the work force is sometimes not even aware of their company’s ethics policy, and doubt that they will actually be heard if they speak up.
- Often, women employees caught in unacceptable situations at work tend to think that this how things work, and that they probably need to ‘adjust’ and ‘accept’.
If a company is indeed committed to diversity and ethics, the following steps will definitely go a long way in delivering results:
- The Ethics and Diversity policies should be transparently and visibly supported and demonstrated from the top downward. The leadership has to demonstrate a ‘bought-in’ attitude, and complete commitment to the policies.
- The ethics policy must be constantly communicated in all possible contexts, so that employees are aware of exactly what their rights are.
- During the induction of fresh employees, a full session on ethics by a senior leader or the ethics officer demonstrates seriousness up front.
- A calendar of ethics trainings and town-hall sessions across offices are a must.
- The most impactful communication of seriousness is achieved if the CEO includes a slide on ethics while conducting town-hall meetings in the company offices.
- Several channels for communicating ethics cases must be in operation at all times. An ethics officer, HR, specially appointed counsellors and guides for women employees, a hotline and an email address to send ethics cases to are some examples.
- The company’s ethics officer must be given the responsibility of treating all ethics cases with utmost seriousness. No complaint should be put aside as frivolous or just a grievance without at least some amount of investigation
- A tracker of all cases giving details from the date of receipt from the complaint to the process of investigation, the result and action taken/closure of the case must be maintained
- Strict compliance with cases where the treatment is stipulated by law is also essential.
- It is very important that justice should be seen to have been done without discrimination
- Protecting an honest victim/complainant is absolutely critical for employees to raise issues without fear
- False and vindictive complaints should also be handled strongly, and such complainants should not be seen to be let off easily.
As already mentioned, a strong and effective ethics policy that goes beyond the paper it is written on is not an easy mandate. Especially in a country like India, women employees tend not to trust an ethics policy, and are not convinced that it protects them or represents their interests. In fact, a company can only demonstrate its dedication to its ethics policy with a lot of hard work – namely by acting on it. However, the payoff for such an approach is profound and unequivocal.
A company with a reputation for taking ethics seriously attracts the very best of employees, experiences low attrition and is able to build a wholesomely diverse workforce much more efficiently than others. The effect that a workforce which is confident of its rights and the company’s leadership and management has on business is already a well-researched and documented subject. In other words, a strong and visibly enforced ethics policy is a company’s ultimate business tool, and also insurance for future-readiness in a world which is rapidly moving towards higher and more equal workplace standards.