Are SA Asset Managers any good at hiring for diversity, equity and inclusion?

In her latest column for Citywire, Phryne Williams asks what the industry could be doing better to develop truly inclusive cultures.

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Across the western world, asset management companies, which are traditionally white-male dominated, are under sustained pressure to achieve measurable diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) results.

This is not just about resolving socio-economic justice issues. There’s a convergence of good reasons for this impetus, which include bottom-line improved business performance and having a stronger employee brand to attract and retain the talent.

In South Africa, hiring for some diversity is mandated by law. This creates a somewhat different environment, with different perspectives that present major challenges and opportunities in the country’s financial services industry. And over the past 28 years, we’ve seen the proverbial, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly when it comes to hiring for DEI.

For example, a client at a leading asset management firm shared with us how, even though she’s on the leadership team, attending the meetings and presenting her opinion during meetings, she does not feel like she truly belongs. This is partly because, outside of this boardroom setting, the ‘inner circle’ is maintained and limited to a select few. There is still a subtle sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Many examples such as this exist despite considerable effort to shift this. This raises the questions: Is belonging misunderstood? What does belonging mean for those who feel like they don’t belong? How do companies create a culture of belonging?

Leadership

What the latest report from The Diversity Report, CEO Inclusive Culture Guide gets right, is the way it rightly targets the CEO and top management. For all too long, DEI was relegated to being a siloed human resource function. This placed a heavy demand on well-meaning organisational people who don’t have the actual power or autonomy to transform company culture.

And, make no mistake, getting DEI and belonging right is a transformation of company culture. This is why it most definitely begins with the company’s leaders.

Supported from the top, DEI and belonging can permeate the organisation. There’s no doubt that the CEO and the leadership team need to be participating in the DEI workshops and initiatives, yet all too often, their absence is glaring. On the flip side, when leaderships shows up committed, it can positively shape hiring practices and decisions. But perhaps most importantly in the South African context, it can help to keep a great new hire focused and happy in the company.

An example of this is where we placed a promising candidate in a company that has a leadership involved and committed to DEI. She was offered both a mentor and a sponsor from the management team.

The latter particularly made the difference for her. He helped her to get noticed through including her in special projects and making suggestions for her involvement across organisational departments. He helped her navigate the corporate politics and introduced her to the company’s influencers. This candidate has recently celebrated her fourth year of employment with this firm and remains motivated and inspired to be a top performer – a win-win for both.

Belonging

Often, diversity hires are made and then their manager turns a blind eye to them, as if their value is about ticking an employment equity box.  Sometimes managers don’t ‘see’ all their employees, and instead gravitate towards those who are most like them.

But, when these new hires have someone of stature in the organisation, not just mentoring them but advocating for them in the role of a sponsor, they start to show what they’re really made of and what they can do for the company. They start to experience spaces where they perceive that they can belong in the long-term.

Does this sound like a lot of ‘extra’ work for the company? Maybe. However, this must be set in the context of the costs of failing to hire plus repeated recruitment costs.

It takes a lot of ‘extra’ out of a company to have their new hires fail – it costs a lot of money and a lot of opportunity. It can also damage your employer brand.

It makes nothing but good business sense to make a solid hire, and then commit to supporting that person’s success. This is how culture changes in a sustainable way, for a long future where diversity, inclusion and belonging are much easier.

What’s your experience? Are you getting diversity and inclusion right, and if so, what has made the difference for you? How about belonging, what makes you feel like you belong? What hasn’t worked? What have you done to foster belonging and inclusion in your organisation? 

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