The Perils of Ignoring Diversity

6 February 2018
News & Knowledge, Symmetra


A Case of Inclusion Illiteracy

As much as diversity is incomplete without a culture of inclusiveness, so inclusion is incomplete without encompassing employees as well as customers of an organisation. Customers desire to be inclusively treated by organisations as much as employees do. And like employees they will be extremely sensitive as to how inclusive they perceive a company’s behaviour to be. Many businesses have not accepted this principle and almost every day we see how they are beginning to suffer for it.

Empathising With the Customer

Customers can no longer be seen as the passive recipients of goods and services

A Bain and Company survey of 362 leading firms found that 80% of the surveyed companies believed they were delivering a “superior experience” to customers. But the same survey of customers revealed only 8% would have agreed. Obviously, it is the assessment of the client that matters since he or she will take their business elsewhere if dissatisfied.

Customers in the current environment want to be respected, treated fairly, have a sense of connectedness with the businesses they buy from and sense that their unique value is known and appreciated. In short, the way they experience the transaction is as important as what they actually buy. And just as with employees, if they feel excluded rather than included by an organisation their loyalty will soon evaporate.

Customer inclusion implies a profound understanding of the customer’s needs derived through relationship building rather than direct sales efforts. It involves endeavours to see the world through the eyes of the customer so that the organisation is positioned to cater for the ever-evolving nuances of the customer’s needs and expectations.

A Momentous Failure of Inclusivity

An example of elementary failure to appreciate the need for customer inclusiveness which hit the headlines recently was provided by the Swedish clothing retailer H & M. Here was a classic illustration of how being tone-deaf to diversity and racial and cultural issues could exact a severe reputational as well as financial penalty. As most people know H & M published an advert depicting a young Black boy wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “the coolest monkey in the jungle”.

The response to this grossly insensitive advert was predictable outrage and condemnation from members of the Black community worldwide and bewilderment from others that a company purporting to present a global brand could allow itself to be associated with such an obnoxious image. Two celebrity collaborators of H & M, The Weeknd and G-Easy immediately terminated their relationships. Many members of the African-American community expressed total dismay at the reckless way the advert had been allowed to impact on their cultural sensitivities. In South Africa where the group had many stores and was hoping to make significant commercial inroads there were widespread public demonstrations causing all H & M stores to be closed. I happened to be in South Africa when the furor erupted and can testify to the palpable sense of outrage that was expressed in the formal media as well as via social media platforms. When I walked past the flagship store in a flashy shopping centre in Johannesburg several days later it was dark and closed but the evidence of the anger which led to rioting through the store and upturning all the clothing racks could be seen through the ceiling to floor glass windows. A few days after the media storm erupted, H & M announced (finally) that it had appointed a global manager for diversity and inclusion. As with all things, what is on the inside will show up on the outside. One can only wonder how a global organisation with more than 4500 stores worldwide and 161,000 employees, marketing a broad range of clothing brands did not have a structure in place to implement diversity and inclusion for either staff or customers. Its gaffe with the monkey advert is almost certainly a sign that H & M has failed to come to grips with what is now a basic truth: that customers will no longer tolerate indifference or, even worse – disrespect.

The Virtuous Circle

Diversity and inclusion has become a multi-dimensional concept. Research by Symmetra and its extensive experience with global clients has brought home to us very forcefully that employee diversity and inclusion and customer diversity, and inclusion when conscientiously and systematically implemented lead to a virtuous circle. They perpetuate each other and act as reciprocal stimuli helping to attract and retain the best people internally and to attract and retain more customers externally. This in turn spurs greater innovation and creativity from employees who aspire to please the customer in a myriad of new ways. And it is this empathy, the ability to truly comprehend the context of customers which enables organisations to design, build and ultimately deliver a product or service that will keep a customer for life and lead customers to advocate on behalf of your organisation.