Embracing diversity is very much flavour of the month, but what does it actually mean? Ian Jerrum provides an introduction and explains why insurance firms should care about this apparently nebulous concept

The reaction of the average insurance professional on hearing the phrase 'embracing diversity' would probably fall somewhere along a spectrum ranging from mild hostility to puzzled indifference.

Yet we are hearing more and more about the importance of taking this unfamiliar concept on board. And there is a raft of legislation designed to punish those who do not. But embracing diversity is not just about meeting the requirements of equal opportunities legislation. It can also make a firm more effective by empowering people and capitalising on their unique strengths.

Embracing diversity is about creating teams in which individuals with a range of complementary strengths work effectively together to achieve common goals. When the members of the team understand and support one another, the resulting synergy can create real competitive advantage. But when colleagues do not accept one another they are unlikely to perform well.

All team-building theories state that an effective team must comprise a diverse group of people. However, it seems to be a fundamental part of human nature to feel drawn to those with whom one has most in common, and mistrustful of those who are different. So learning to embrace the constructive power of diversity does need working at.

What is embracing diversity
Embracing diversity means far more than simply tolerating people who are different.

It is about actively welcoming them and encouraging them to contribute all that they are capable of. It is about creating an environment in which all employees feel safe in asking for help - and where asking for help is not seen as a sign of weakness. Matching the strengths of some with the weaknesses of others is what makes a truly effective team.

Creating a dynamic team spirit requires buy-in from all its members. Everyone needs to feel they are playing a part in the common goal of being better at what they do than the competition. When this happens a sense of the team's collective willingness to go the extra mile will communicate itself to customers.

Most problems in the workplace arise, not from individual incompetence, but from colleagues' inability to work productively together. Staff are normally recruited on the assumption that they are already capable of fulfilling the roles expected of them - or can be made so with only a modest amount of training. This training is normally carried out on the job - with the emphasis very much on the technical aspects of an individual's role.

Making the most of soft skills
Diversity falls within the realm of what are termed "soft skills". If you want to build strong teams, such soft skills can be just as important as the more obvious technical aspects of training. Each team member must not only be able to understand and work with the other members of their team - they must feel enthusiastic about doing so.

Diversity is not simply about black and white, male and female, homosexual and heterosexual, Muslim and Christian, young and old, and so on. It is about the diversity each individual employee embodies - whether they are a fast or slow learner, extrovert or introvert, controlling type or people type, studious or sporty, politically inclined to left or right. It is about each individual being unique and having a unique contribution to make.

But why is culture so important? The reality is that we live in any increasingly culturally diverse society. Embracing diversity can therefore play an important part in broadening your customer base in a highly competitive insurance market.

The first step is to get managers visibly involved in culture change programs. This shows leadership, and helps break down resistance. The second is inspiring diversity in the work force. Everyone wants to belong to an organisation that believes in them, no matter what their background or culture.

If managers are trained in diversity, and can provide positive role models, this goal will be relatively easy to achieve.

Training diversity involves around 15% skill (interacting with others, soliciting input etc), 10% knowledge (awareness of cultural differences, terminology etc) and 75% attitude (responding to others, changing deeply held beliefs etc).

So training diversity is mostly a question of changing attitudes. In this context we can define attitude as a persistent feeling or emotion that influences actions and responses to stimuli - a disposition or tendency to respond either positively or negatively towards certain things.

While virtually impossible to measure in themselves, such attitudes can be tested through the behaviour in which they manifest themselves - eg respect shown to colleagues from different cultures.

Embracing diversity enables an organisation to recognise, respect and capitalise on the different backgrounds of its employees in terms of race, ethnicity and gender. Different cultural groups have different values, styles and outlooks each of which may have substantial effect on the way they do business. Rather than stifling these different approaches, employers should recognise them as potential benefits.

By the same token, failing to manage diversity can result in serious harm to the business. It can cost you in terms of discrimination claims, wasted management time, legal fees and/or settlements, high employee turnover and a negative image in the wider community. Given all these factors, it is well worth insurance firms of all sizes taking the issue of embracing diversity very seriously indeed. IT

' Ian Jerrum is managing director of Searchlight Solutions, the first training provider to be accredited by the Skills Council. This feature is based on materials available on Searchlight's market-leading e-learning system, Tick

Take the test
Test yourself on embracing diversity:

Q1. What is the main area of legislation relevant to firms' obligation to embrace diversity?

Q2. Training focused on diversity focuses on developing what general category of skills?

Q3. 75% of training diversity is about - not skill, not knowledge - but what?

Q4. Given the near impossibility of measuring an individual's cultural attitudes, measuring what can provide an indication?

Q5. Name three of the possible downsides for a firm that fails to embrace diversity.

Q1. Equal opportunities

Q2. Soft skills

Q3. Attitude

Q4. Behaviour

Q5. Any three from: legal fees; settlements; wasted management time; high employee turnover; costs from discrimination claims; or a negative image in the wider community