10% More Profit Through Creative Problem Solving
By Andrew Whibley FRSA
Workplaces are not environments where highfaluting principles of human rights and justice are naturally embraced. Perhaps many businesses would not want to be distracted by such ideals. Yet imagine an organisational structure where human rights and justice are embedded tightly into the culture: so tightly that they are seamless and taken for granted. This is also an organisation that delivers on average 10% more profit through creative problem solving, has low staff attrition, and employee engagement and performance is measured in high percentiles by default. This work environment exists, and it is within the grasp and capability of your business. Grant me a few moments to explain how it is achieved…
I never intended to go into human rights professionally. As I was concluding my University studies in Plymouth, I wrote a punky letter to the UN High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR) in Geneva which said, “Hey, I have learned some things, and I’d like to use my knowledge. Can I come and work for you?”
A month later I was sitting in an attic office of the Palais de Nations on the banks of Lake Geneva. I had a mountain of evidence of human rights abuses to sift through, committed during and after the vicious, long civil war in the former Yugoslavia. I wrote summaries, and prepared the former Yugoslavia Mission report for submission to the Commission for Human Rights. I supported the Special Rapporteur for Yugoslavia to navigate the huge number of meetings and events she was required to attend across the Palais estate.
I spent three years working for the UNHCHR. From Geneva I went first to Sarajevo, then to Banja Luka – the Bosnian Serb capital in northern Bosnia. My duties also took me to Vienna, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. I met many people; some now reside as guests of The International Hague Tribunal, and some didn’t make it to old age.
I learned a great deal about identity from the ashes of the Bosnian ‘ethnic-cleansing’ war. Cultural, political, and individual traits like race and ethnicity, religion, faith, privilege, power, threat, fear and sanction.
I wrote about the truth in my reports, and I used my position as an international Human Rights Officer to try to advance the peace process. My own identity, authenticity and sense-of-self was secondary and separate from my privileged diplomatic position.
I returned to the UK as the sun set on the 20th Century. I was content to leave the former Yugoslavia after an intense period of active service. I had been asked to head up the UNHCHR Mission in Kosovo; a position I felt would be inevitably limited considering the competing ambitions of a certain Balkan President and NATO.
I relocated to London, and after living an extremely guarded, closeted, and (dull) private social life, I gently swung open the closet doors to see what I had been missing. The answer was confusing. Here was a vibrant City with cash, influence, and hedonism flowing freely, yet workplace rules and social ‘norms’ were rigidly upheld.
The start of the Millennium working as a discreetly gay man in the City of London was a place of reluctant acceptance or occasional tolerance in many circles. My first decade of working in the City was a Crystal Maze of fitting in, hiding in smoke, shadows or behind mirrors. Negotiating a chameleon like existence; assessing which situations and circumstances I could be open about my relationship or friendship groups. How and whom I liked to socialise, relax and holiday with.
I recall sitting in a restaurant in Hong Kong with a work colleague getting to know each other a little better. I liked, respected, and admired her. I wanted to speak openly with her and have a normal conversation. Yet, I sat eating while subtly editing my life so that I would not give away any detail that would jeopardise my reputation or position. Eventually the mask cracked, and the word ‘partner’ no longer became a substitute for a person. Partner had become an amorphous being that I constantly compared myself to.
That evening was the tipping point for me. It had been awkward and superficial, revealing the strain of secrecy, and the low-level anxiety of inauthenticity. The fear of being found out and what that might mean? The mental energy required to be thinking three sentences ahead to cloak my sexual orientation was exhausting. I had dehumanised my life and existence, and those I cared for. Inauthenticity – in whatever form – is stressful, and stress reduces performance!
I find it incredible to reflect today that employment protections for many people only arrived with the Equality Act 2010. While the act brought legal security for protected characteristics, it did not deliver immediate action for equal, diverse, and inclusive work environments.
Equality, diversity, and inclusion (ED&I) are three words that provide guidance for individuals and employers to see, understand, acknowledge, and respect the differences of other people.
Equality entitles any individual to the same rights and responsibilities of any other individual. They are no better and no lesser than any other person.
Diversity illustrates that people like us are also different from ourselves. Those differences maybe discreet or obvious. Those differences make us no better and no lesser than any other person.
Likewise, those differences maybe reason to explore a variety of creative ways in which people can make connection with each other and beyond… to be included.
Equality, diversity and inclusion does occasionally get bad press. It is perhaps surprising that only a couple of decades into the 21st Century we are still navigating how a society can be more respectful of itself. What is certainly surprising is that organisations are still discovering the value of enabling every individual in their employ to achieve their full potential.
The purpose of ED&I legislation is to have processes and systems to address structural inequality. The law provides a baseline to which all organisations are obliged to raise their game. The financial price of complying with legislation can be initially burdensome. To its detractors and opponents financing ED&I can attract accusations of political correctness, wokeism, tokenism, interference, red-tape, or liberal agenda. Turn this argument on its head, and ED&I can remove discrimination, victimisation, and harassment (see expensive tribunal), and enable whole person, whole job engagement, and a return on investment.
When people cannot bring their differences freely into their work identity, they cannot be fully authentic. Language and behaviour is often subtly, imperceptibly and (sometimes) subconsciously adjusted or edited to conform and fit in. We encounter an individual who has two cultural identity mental processors: one for work and one for life. Imagine the consequence for a business that allows their people to focus this duplicated mental capability onto a single lens. Full authenticity allows people the freedom to be who they are. It releases mental intelligence, creativity, thought and memory. Authenticity allows the brain to operate fluidly and without distraction. Authenticity delivers better performance.
Equality, diversity and inclusion is the key to unlock authenticity; to allow a person to be psychologically safe enough to perform with ‘normal’ bandwidth. ED&I is more than a ‘nice-to-have’ or ‘tick-box exercise’ to satisfy a legal requirement. It is an enabler of effective, higher performing, functioning work environments, releasing creativity, problem solving, innovation, and efficiency in surroundings free of fear or sanction.
I left the United Nations, Switzerland and Bosnia, and returned to the UK. I didn't think I would use my experience in human rights to any great extent again. In fact, the opposite is true in many ways. ED&I is a modern, commercially vibrant society’s extended model of basic human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948. On the 10th anniversary of the Declaration, Eleanor Roosevelt gave a speech saying,
'Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.'
Eleanor’s sentiments are as true today as they were in 1958. Perhaps more so, as the duty to affect genuine human rights and dignity is given directly to those of us in positions of authority in business and society.
Fifty member states of the United Nations were able to agree to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights nearly 75 years ago. This alone is an excellent measure of ambition to do the right thing by ED&I. We are simply asked to create respectful workplace environments that respect the authenticity and whole identity of our people.
About the author
Andrew is an advocate for human rights, corporate social responsibility and environmental protection. He attends regular Gay Agenda meetings, and won’t hear a word spoken against Kylie Minogue.
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