The Diversity Playbook: Q&A with Hephzi Pemberton

The time has arrived for inclusion. The Diversity Playbook shares how to make it happen

If you want to understand how to make your organisation more diverse and inclusive but don’t know where to start, ask Hephzi Pemberton, founder of The Equality Group and author of the new DEI must read, The Diversity Playbook.

In short, digestible chapters, she spells out exactly what leaders, managers, and employers should do to stop treating diversity as a corporate social responsibility or PR exercise when wider society shows us that it is necessary. Pemberton argues that businesses that consider diversity as just “nice to have” will be left behind. 

Why are you publishing The Diversity Playbook now?

Because the progress on diversity and inclusion is still too slow. Part of the reason for this is a knowledge and know-how gap in many companies. I wanted to move on from the “why” we should be doing this and the multitude of challenges to the “how” and available solutions. There is a good body of academic research and business case studies to draw upon and learn from. So I wrote The Diversity Playbook to bring these insights in a digestible and applicable format for any business professional.

What Inspired you to start your business, The Equality Group?

I strongly believe in the business case for investing in diversity and inclusion. After over a decade working in financial and professional services, I could see that the rate of change was glacial, and many companies were struggling in this area. At the same time, there is a huge shift towards ESG in the corporate world. Many companies didn’t know what to do about the “S”, the social side, where diversity, inclusion and equity belong. I wanted to build a business that specialised in this area and partnered with firms that prioritised the topic as a key driver of strategic growth.

How have you been aware of diversity in your working and private life?

From my first job as an analyst at Lehman Brothers, I was aware that fewer women were in the cohort. The split was 40/60 at the time, which was better than many other investment banks. In my first week, I was told that I was likely a token hire because of my gender. My housemate and colleague also worked at the bank. She was the only Black woman in the class. She was told the same thing. Neither of us let this hold us back. We are both successful business founders and advisors. We have created significant value for our stakeholders and employees. I am determined that the business world changes to viewing diversity, inclusion and equity as a driver of long-term value and not short-term box-ticking or tokenism.

Do you think people and companies are wary of engaging with diversity and inclusion?

Yes, there is a lot of caution and fear around diversity and inclusion. It is a highly emotive and complex subject. But, at the same time, with global events, increasing societal awareness and growing shareholder pressure, it is becoming very hard to avoid the topic. I meet a lot of business leaders who just want to know what they should do and what actually works. That is why I wrote The Diversity Playbook.

What is it about your approach that is different?

There are several excellent books on the topic of diversity that explore the problems and challenges. However, fewer discuss the solutions and ways to make progress from a business perspective. I wrote The Diversity Playbook to distil the best of the academic research and the business best practice into a practical and accessible guide.

How important is the language that we use?

Language is incredibly significant. It can signal acceptance, belonging and inclusion, or the opposite.

One of the most challenging aspects of language is how rapidly it evolves. Indeed, universally agreed language about issues relating to race are almost non-existent. One of the messages in the book is to take responsibility for educating yourself on the language you use and to raise awareness of the impact this has on furthering diversity and inclusion.

What has the impact of COVID-19 been on diversity and inclusion?

COVID has magnified many of the inequalities in our society and our workplace. For example, women have been disproportionately affected by job losses and the burden of educating children at home during school closures. We also know that people from ethnic minority groups are almost three times as likely to contract COVID-19 and five times more likely to experience serious outcomes. The only silver lining I can see from the pandemic is the acceleration towards flexible and remote working. This is good news for many in the workplace, from those with caring responsibilities to widening social mobility and access opportunities.

Who is this book for?

It is written for anyone in the business world seeking to understand better and implement diversity, equity and inclusion in their organisation. This could be the Board director needing to get up to speed on the topic, or the HR director looking for debiased talent tools, or a manager who wants to see more diversity in their team. At the same time, the topic is relevant for anyone working in the private or the public sector who wants to know what the solutions are.

Is this just an HR question? Or does it go beyond that?

It definitely goes beyond HR. Diversity and inclusion are about adding long-term value to your business through greater levels of creativity, resilience, innovation and problem-solving. Anyone running a business should want that. HR is absolutely critical to the picture, but too often, the topic gets left there and doesn’t move into the other strategic areas of the business where it belongs. One of my main messages is that diversity and inclusion is a profit centre, not a cost centre!

How important is it to talk about the financial and competitive benefits of diversity in the workplace? Will the battle ever be won if companies fail to see an increase in the bottom line?

The business case for diversity is fundamental to winning hearts and minds in the business world. I talk about the multitude of research studies showing the bottom-line benefits of investing in diversity and inclusion. Individual case studies are also critical, like Satya Nadella prioritising inclusion and diversity in his leadership of Microsoft and skyrocketing the valuation to over a trillion dollars. Or the story of the diverse team at Johnson & Johnson who developed an alcohol-free, green-tea based mouthwash for the Muslim market.

What do you think the future holds? Are you optimistic about systemic change?

I am a realistic optimist. I know that this is a very long journey with a lot of bumps in the road. Not everyone wants the system to change, especially if it benefits them. However, I strongly believe there are more leaders out there who want the system to change for the benefit of the many. They see the opportunities that diversity and inclusion will bring to their businesses and society. What they need are the knowledge and the tools of how to do this. That is why I wrote The Diversity Playbook.

Hephzi Pemberton is a former banker and angel investor who, in 2018, established The Equality Group, an inclusion and diversity specialist business that helps companies create more inclusive cultures. Pemberton brings everything she has learned in that field into sharp focus in The Diversity Playbook.

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