Experts Share Their Tips on Achieving Diversity in New Retail

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By Published On: May 11, 20180 Comments

At a recent NORA and Salesforce event, panelists spoke on a personal and professional level about the responsibility of retailers to operate a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Standing in front of a full room at Myer’s Mural Hall in Melbourne, Paul Zahra, a global retail advisor and former CEO and managing director of David Jones, spoke about his difficulties growing up as a homosexual male in the ‘80s.

“Knowing you’re different, but also knowing it’s against the law… That’s a difficult thing to grow up with. I was constantly bullied and harassed,” he said.

Landing his first job in retail at Target, Zahra felt he needed to hide who he was, citing work Christmas parties where he would show up with a girlfriend in tow. However, as a male with a love for fashion, he did find some solitude in the aisles of Target.

“For me, the retail store was where dreams come true.”

While his life now is very different to what it was when he was just starting out in his career, Zahra doesn’t want future generations of retailers to feel the way he did all those years ago.

“This generation shouldn’t have to tolerate the bias of the generations before them. However, this change doesn’t come from the bottom – it comes from leadership,” Zahra said.

Understanding Bias, Diversity, and Inclusion

Acceptance of sexual orientations both at a personal and professional level is a much talked about topic, and when combined with gender equality, makes up a large portion of the discussion surrounding diversity and inclusion, especially in the workplace. However, according to Dr Sandy Caspi Sable, a diversity and inclusion expert, Zahra’s story is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Diversity of thinking, experience and approach is a much more accurate way of describing diversity because it thinks about the whole picture,” she told attendees.

While heavily discussed minorities are key to achieving equality, Sable believes that alone, addressing these issues isn’t enough.

To illustrate her point to the room, she posed one simple question. What is bias? With a straight look on her face, she asked a room of the retail industry’s key decision makers whether their bias influences their decisions in the workplace?

The short answer, according to Sable is that yes, it does.

“Bias is not a dirty word,” she said. “It’s simply a preference or an automatic association… Social stereotypes and personal experiences are how we categorise information.”

diversity in new retail

From left, panelists Paul Zahra, Dominique Lamb, Dr Sandy and Mark Coulter discuss diversity in new retail.

Decisions made out of bias can happen at a conscious or unconscious level, and as much as we might want to, we can’t control them. However, when it comes to operating a welcoming and inclusive workplace, we can manage them.

“Inclusion is measured by the things that you do, not what you say,” she explained.

When we discuss diversity at a higher level, everything from personality traits to likes and dislikes should be included in the conversation. Sable believes that it’s human nature for people to shy away from people who are different to them, and to feel safe and comfortable around people who are familiar – who are like them.

“Think about early human tribes,” she said. “When someone saw someone unfamiliar walking towards their settlement, someone with different clothes, a different skin colour, what would that person think? They would think it was someone coming to attack them. On the other hand, when they saw someone like them approaching, they would think it’s their tribe returning from a hunt.”

The Benefit of Diverse Workplaces in the New Retail Arena

Operating a diverse workplace comes with numerous benefits, as diversity and inclusion often result in improved business outcomes.

“Diverse teams are better problem solvers,” Sable said. “Diverse teams that reflect customer demographics are also highly valuable.”

To illustrate her point, she discussed how Cricket Australia was having trouble attracting Australia’s large Muslim population to the cricket. A marketing team of predominantly white, middle-aged men couldn’t solve the problem, until they asked an Islamic individual from another area of the business what would make him want to go to the cricket.

Halal food. His answer was simple; his wife wouldn’t want to pack lunch and snacks for the whole family every time they go to the cricket. In Sable’s opinion, without a broader, more diverse group of employees, Cricket Australia might not have realised that this is what they were missing all along.

“We hire for diversity, but we fire for not being the same,” Sable said. “We need to understand what an inclusive culture looks like so we can benefit from a more inclusive environment.”

How Can Retailers Make Their Workplace More Diverse?

As a young woman who has made it to the top, Dominique Lamb, The CEO of the National Retail Association (NRA) believes people need to be a champion of change, at every level, but especially at a leadership level.

“We see things when they get really bad [at the NRA]. You need to be a champion of this change. There will be roadblocks but you need to have a voice and work through them. Keep having discussions about how you can implement change in the workplace,” she advises.

This sentiment rang true among all of the panellists, with Mark Coulter, Temple & Webster’s CEO, saying the conversation around diversity needs to happen on an ongoing basis.

“The conversation will always have to happen because we are all biased. It’s unfortunate, but it’s in our DNA,” Coulter said.

“We need to constantly question our practices. Do [your employees] need to work five days a week? Do they need to work face-to-face with you? Can a man really do this job better than a woman?”

Sable delved even deeper into the conversation around what retailers can do to make their workplaces more diverse when an audience member who works for Myer asked the question, ‘do specific hiring targets for diversity actually work?’

“Unless we measure things, little progress can be made. It’s also a numbers game, as we have already seen that in organisations where hiring targets are in place, companies are hiring more women,” Sable said.

However, when answering, she also emphasised that these women or minority individuals need to be set up for success. People within the business, especially ones who might hold a certain bias, need to understand that different people, often women, can come with different skill sets.

“They might not be the same as the person that previously held the role, but people who offer different value can help drive the business forward and make the organisation better,” Sable said.

In terms of identifying the right talent for your retail business, regardless of a candidate’s gender, race, religious beliefs or personality, how you advertise a job can have a big impact on the diverse talent pool you can attract.

“The language you use in ads and how you frame the available role can help you attract a suitable, more diverse talent pool,” said Sable.

Lamb also believes that it’s important for leaders to understand their employees, and personalise their management style when they’re working with different people.

“It’s about identifying the values, strengths and weaknesses of each team member, and working with each of them as individuals, but also as a whole. You need to ask yourself, who am I dealing with? So you can use that to capture who a person is and create the best performing team,” she said.

According to Sable, at the end of the day, it comes down to having the answer to one very important question in the new retail environment: “How will an investment in inclusion meet our commercial objectives?”

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