To take an idea of the current issues and challenges in terms of diversity in the workplace, the HR Square network brought together five experts. The new inter-university certificate on the assets of diversity offered since this year by UC Louvain and ULB testifies to the contribution that training can make to meeting these challenges.

Work and employment are in the top 3 of the reports received by Unia, the independent public institution that fights against discrimination and defends equal opportunities in Belgium. Approximately one in four of the employment cases dealt with concerns hiring, 22% concerns dismissal, a similar proportion concerns work organization, 14% concerns professional relations and harassment and a little more than 2% concerns access to promotions or training. A picture that reminds companies how numerous and delicate the challenges of diversity and inclusion can be. A proactive approach, built and regularly improved, is more than necessary and it is in this spirit that a new training program on the subject has been set up, offered jointly by UCLouvain and ULB. It is intended for HR managers and all actors who are in the front line of diversity, inclusion and discrimination issues. To take care of the situation, HR Square gathered around a (virtual) table Claire Godding, Senior Counsel Diversity, Inclusion & Societal Needs at Febelfin, the Belgian federation of the financial sector.

What do you see as the current issues in diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

Claire Godding: “Data from a variety of sources show that discrimination in hiring is still a reality. Another related but less visible reality is that when people with a visible background other than the majority have been hired, often the machine stops there. Of course, if the person has managed to become part of the company, that is already a step. But if he or she is growing and achieving success, why shouldn’t he or she be able to progress and grow within the organization? However, we notice that obstacles and brakes, both potentially from the person herself – who then hesitates to put herself forward – and, above all, from management and human resources, can prevent some from being considered as candidates for a higher position.

In the end, there may be a large number of people in companies whose talents are not being used to the fullest. Alongside all the efforts made in terms of diversity, there is really a cultural change that needs to take place in companies to become inclusive companies. Management must be able to evolve and demonstrate what is called inclusive leadership: for example, for a leader to understand that everyone’s thoughts and opinions are going to provide much better solutions than his own idea. This implies being comfortable enough with oneself and with others. What companies need today is co-decision, participation, sharing and this can only work in a context of psychological security. Working on fears in the company is also a big issue in diversity and inclusion.”

Tamara Eelsing: “In my organization, the scale of the neutrality challenge is a daily reality: how do you ensure a service that is neutral for customers and a work context that is neutral enough for employees to evolve with all that is at stake? You have to realize that in an organization of 10,000 people, there will always be one person who may not feel treated the way he or she would like to be.

Secondly, the communication around these subjects is very complex. You should know that we receive about 30,000 applications per year at the STIB. Brussels is a multiple village and the STIB is fully anchored in this village. At the STIB, there are women who wear the veil. They are simply asked not to wear it within the company. It is absurd to hear that the STIB would not hire Muslims. If you look at the top 5 names in the company, you will find a majority of names of presumed foreign origin. Our desire and our challenge is to attract profiles of all nationalities and not to create large groups within the company, with sub-groups of super-minority origins. We want a real mix that will enrich the organization.

We often see that when a group enters an organization, more people from that group will enter. But that doesn’t guarantee that there will be diversity in the broadest sense. The challenge is to be able to attract all groups. We already have a lot of nationalities in the STIB, but in Brussels there are many more, and some we don’t reach yet. Another challenge is the contradictions that diversity objectives can sometimes bring, for example, the expression of certain political or religious beliefs could conflict with the desire of others to express their sexual orientation. For me, diversity and inclusion cover the idea of living well together, the fact that everyone respects the other in their values, beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, etc. without judgment.”

Claire Godding: “Contrary to what many people think, it is not multiculturalism that brings a risk of intolerance towards women, or towards LGBT colleagues, rather it is homogeneity that increases this risk. A homogeneous group of white men of the same generation is at greater risk of racist, sexist or homophobic microaggressions – mostly unintentional – than a mixed, multicultural and multigenerational group. The challenge is not to have as many non-Belgians as possible, but to have mixed teams. A person from sub-Saharan Africa will often be more easily welcomed in a mixed team composed of colleagues from all over.”

Does the health crisis bring new diversity challenges?

Claire Godding: “The post-pandemic world of work that is emerging raises a lot of questions about diversity and inclusion. If, tomorrow, most companies tell their employees that they’ve been very self-reliant during these difficult times and that it’s now up to them to determine what they want in terms of office attendance – for example, coming in between two and four days a week – it’s positive and healthy to let everyone decide, but there are also associated dangers. One very real risk is that people who are present more after the pandemic – usually more men – are given more responsibilities – with colleagues working more remotely risking being ‘forgotten’.

Tamara Eelsing: “I would indeed be curious to see an analysis of all women’s evaluations since the outbreak of the health crisis. One should not underestimate the fact that Belgium is still a fairly traditional society. With the confinements, women took care of the children the majority of the time, especially when they could no longer go to school. With less time to devote to work, they may not have achieved all of their goals, which puts their future promotions, future salary increases and even their pensions at risk. We need to be careful that the work environment does not become even more unfavorable to women, by putting them back at home in another form of work.”

Muriel Simon: “With the health crisis, studies show that inequalities have been reinforced, that others have appeared. We can think of gender or disability, whether it is among people in employment or seeking employment.

What we also see is that some sectors have been more affected than others, either because people have been temporarily unemployed, or because they have been over-solicited, with strong representations of women or people of foreign origin. These are also sectors that are undervalued. These are things to be taken into account with a ‘diversity’ perspective.

Claire Godding: “The Covid-19 crisis has also generated quite a bit of polarization on certain topics, such as the acceptance of sanitary measures or vaccination. The company has a responsibility to educate, just as the school and the media do. Some companies, as part of the vaccination strategy, have shared with their employees a series of scientific or methodical information to encourage them to deconstruct myths and make informed decisions. Adherence to fake news leads to a risk of radicalization, which is precisely opposed to inclusion.”

Muriel Simon: “Today, people can finally get out of their bubble and learn to live together again, which is also going to be a challenge in terms of diversity and inclusion. This image of a bubble is not insignificant. In companies that continued to work on-site, employees also continued to interact and see different people. In those companies where teleworking has been massive or where there has been a long-term stoppage, the situation is different. However, this practice of living together, of exchanging, of listening, is the basis and it will have to be re-established in many places.