Much has been made of the impact that diversity can make on improving business decision-making and corporate results.
But looked at from the broader context of social cohesion, ethnic, linguistic and political diversity has been found to have a statistically and economically negative effect on economic growth in a cross-section of countries. In other words, the more diversity you have in a country, the harder it is for policymakers to mobilise a unified effort to addressing a country’s critical development goals.
This means that, in addition to unemployment, poverty and social inequality, we now need to add “diversity” to the array of challenges that face Africa in general and South Africa in particular. By almost every measure of diversity, African countries rank among the top 20 most diversified (least homogeneous) countries in the world.
That said, there are ways to tackle this challenge, and the answer lies in a surprising place - not with the government but with employers.
The workplace is one of the few places we have in South Africa where people of all backgrounds meet regularly day in, day out. As a reflection of the complex tapestry of the South African social fabric, the workplace is the ideal setting for examining these issues and test-driving solutions - but only if we get the structure right for what we are terming here as the “well-being corporation”.
It’s not enough for employers to introduce programmes to maintain employees’ financial, physical and emotional well-being. What long-term value does a female middle manager get if she can now control her debt and spending but is trapped beneath a glass ceiling in career advancement? Similarly, a company may offer internships and internal training programmes without having thought through exactly how these trainees can advance their careers. And the government has been more than forthcoming with financial incentives for companies to place a greater emphasis on skills development and transformation. But so far, these efforts have done little to create real change. The question is why?
What many employers fail to do is create an integrated strategy that pulls all the strands and initiatives together to create a coherent whole. This is our well-being corporation.
The diagram identifies the various layers of this well-being corporation and how they integrate with each other. The innermost layers deal with how to address the individual’s specific needs for maintaining productivity and well-being. The middle layers address what corporate policies must bring to the table to create a follow-through on elevating employees, and the outermost layers show where these company policies intersect with broader societal needs.
An integrated strategy does two critical things:
1. It ensures that each layer builds on the preceding one - and that means that not only is the messaging clear to employees and policymakers but also that there are significant economic benefits to the bottom line of creating a more optimal structure of deployment and follow-through.
2. It entrenches transformation and social cohesion in an employer’s overall business strategy.
What it also suggests is that companies need to reconfigure their management committees or excos to accommodate a very different type of leadership role. Let’s call this role something like “chief strategic development officer”.
That individual would oversee the following areas of responsibility:
* Transformation - to run enterprise development, supplier development, and financial education programmes, as well as oversee regulatory black economic empowerment management requirements;
* Diversity and inclusion (D&I), including the management of employment equity and other D&I matters;
* Sustainability reporting;
* Corporate social responsibility, including corporate social investment and other organisational support that might be required by relevant industry bodies; and
* Skills development and training, Seta reporting, bursaries and internships.
Layer one introduces the idea that productivity in the workplace begins at an almost microscopic level: how conducive the work environment is to helping employees meet their most basic human needs.
Layer two refers to programmes employers put in place to address their employees’ general well-being.
Layer three begins to get to the very heart of a company’s culture, role and identity in society and to what extent the employer commits to broader societal demands.
Layer four starts to forge connecting links between the workplace and our broader societal commitments, where policymakers have already started introducing either incentives or penalties to encourage our participation.
Layer five is where the whole picture is integrated into a company’s short-term and long-term strategic plan. Leadership is the pivotal point for success. Through effective leadership, the company will facilitate and achieve much-needed buy-in from shareholders, stakeholders and policymakers.
By framing the challenge for the well-being corporation in this way, the following can be achieved:
* A more cost-effective way of integrating the human capital development strategies of an employer with its strategic business vision; and
* A framework for measuring the:
* Impact of government policies on both the social transformations the government requires and the value-add that businesses require; and
* Value-add of employee well-being to corporate productivity holistically.
If South Africa is going to tackle its developmental challenges, the starting point will be to convince all stakeholders that achieving social cohesion will serve all our interests. Harnessing the power of the workplace and the concept of a well-being corporation will provide us with our best opportunity to achieve that end.
Anne Cabot-Alletzhauser is the head of the Alexander Forbes Research Institute.