The Real Challenge of Equality and Diversity


Businesses are well aware of their responsibilities to comply with equality and diversity legislation. For example, in social housing, various frameworks exist to help with this. Yet, I’ve often been witness to high level conversations where the differences between equality and diversity are not clearly understood. The danger of using the phrase “equality and diversity” is that the two words become a kind of single phrase, a more general term, and the specific and important differences between equality and diversity are ignored and skated over.

Quite a few years back, I co-authored a book called “E:Quality“. Here we began to really explore the differences and overlaps between the concepts and practices of equality and diversity. That book was based on research across Europe within the telecommunications sector. In more recent years, I’ve been looking at equality and diversity more closely within social housing.

So, let’s get back to basics. Equality is about fairness and equal right of access.  Diversity is about the right to be different, and for that difference to be acknowledged and reasonably taken into account in practice.

Here it is again: equality – the right to be treated fairly. Diversity, the right to be treated differently.

The Right to be Equal or Different?

Now, we are on dangerous territory here, especially with the word “diversity”. In purist view diversity, everyone has the right to be treated as a unique species of one.  In a more realist view, diversity is about how we self-identify and what categories of difference we put ourselves into, and are put into by others. Ethnic diversity, ability and disability diversity, sexual identity, age, to name but a few. Our “diversities” can be as simple as “male and female”, or as subtle as “shy or outgoing”. Some diversities are enshrined in law and linked to equality legislation. For example, age or sexual discrimination legislation.

At the most basic level, our approach to diversity must comply to all relevant legislation and accepted codes of practice. Already we may have a problem here, because some tenants may not identify themselves exactly with what the law labels them as. I may not see myself as “elderly” even as I draw a pension. I may not see myself as disabled, simply because I am in a wheelchair. The recent Paralympics transformed many people’s images of what diversity means generally, and they certainly heard a wider and deeper range of self-definitions coming from the sports men and women themselves.

The Right to Be Me

Equality is the right to be treated fairly. Diversity is a dual concept. At one level it represents the society-defined (and sometimes enshrined in law) categories of difference between us. At another level, diversity is how we define ourselves, sometimes, but often not entirely in tune with, legal definitions. Where the law doesn’t allow any room for self-definition, (for example, tax breaks for women, or the age at which you draw your pension), then self-definition comes into play at the border of legality. Where the law does allow room for self-definition, there is an opportunity for enhancing tenant and customer care by offer a flexible response and making adaptations to those self-defined diversities, not only to comply with the law, but also “delight” the customer.

So, what can that mean in practice?

I’m in a wheelchair. I work and feel myself to be fully able. I want this acknowledged and it is for me to call attention to my wheelchair, not you.

I prefer face to face conversations that phone conversations, and I don’t really use email.

I’m a quiet person. I tend to get stressed and sometimes can lose my temper when I’m given too much to do or think about too quickly.

My English isn’t very good, but I’m English.

I don’t want to be called by my first name.

I understand things better when they are written down.

I work night shifts so I can’t always speak on the phone or attend face to face meetings during the day.

I don’t want to be hurried. I want proper time for a conversation.

I  am a tenant and my rent pay your wages, so you should listen to me.

I don’t speak English very well, but I understand it a lot better than I speak it.

I’m not an aggressive person, I’m just quite full on sometimes.

I am a tenant, not a customer.

I’m a professional person and expect to be treated so. I want  my knowledge and experience acknowledged.

Some of these may seem more like attitudes. They become “diversities” when they persist over time and when they are valued highly by the person. The person identifies strongly with them. It’s a big part of “who am I”. The test of this is when the diversity is experienced as being devalued, ignored or undermined. The response is “you are ignoring ME”. The result is an experience of the housing association delivering a lower level of customer or tenant care.

The Importance of Acknowledgement

A big part of this is acknowledgement. We may not have the resources or the wish to meet all diversity needs in a person, but acknowledging their existence and respecting their right to exist goes a long way to creating a positive reaction in a tenant.

Acknowledgement, when authentic, is a big part of perceived customer services. Denying or denigrating a diversity is a major cause of tenant dissatisfaction. Where we can, as well as acknowledging a diversity, we also show flexibility and willing adaptation, the tenant then feels that the organisation is responding to, and valuing their difference, their self-defined uniqueness.  The result is a perceived high level of tenant care.

The ability of an organisation to read, acknowledge and respond to diversity, is the one of the keys to satisfied, and even, delighted tenants.

Often these diversities are small in our view, but huge to the tenant. Slowing down, speaking more clearly, holding a door open, allowing  confusion, going with a chosen nickname, using a preferred communication method, being patient, joining in with humour, allowing and emotional reaction, being aware and sensitive to someone’s background or upbringing, giving leeway to a person, all of these things need not take up too much time, and may cost little or nothing.

Others require adaptation that may draw upon resources we don’t have. Here we may have to stop at acknowledgement of the diversity even as we have to create clear and respectful boundaries of refusal and non-adaptation. Acknowledgement is the key here and it is a skill that can be learned: the skill of active listening, summary and feedback, empathy and emotional intelligence, and clear boundary drawing. Many front-line staff, especially under stress, don’t have this skill.

The Challenge

The challenge for leaders in customer care is to meet equality requirements, comply with diversity legislation, but then go further, and to see tenants as unique, self-defining human beings. Many of these diversities can inspire and enrich a housing association and its community. Some diversities simply lay down the challenge for us to respond smartly, wisely and be prepared to innovate.


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