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Ep 473: The Power Of Difference


DE&I remains a major priority for employers, but progress is slow and sometimes completely stuck. So how should companies be thinking about diversity, and what practical actions can they take to build and benefit from teams of difference?

My guest this week is writer, broadcaster and consultant Simon Fanshawe. Simon is a well known figure in the UK and has recently published an excellent book, “The Power of Difference”. He advocates that progress comes when employers move away from the jargon around DE&I and genuinely understand how building a diverse workforce will drive their specific business objectives.

In the interview, we discuss:

• The human question of diversity and what does it actually mean.

• The power of combining difference

• The dangers of conformity and the imposition of rules

• Building teams of difference

• Using data to understand what is happening and why

• Understanding specific diversity business cases

• The virtuous circle of selection

• Is unconscious bias training actually helpful?

• Redesigning the recruiting process to challenge assumptions

• The most accurate predictor of future success

• Making employee resource groups more effective

Listen to this podcast on Apple Podcasts.


Matt Alder (0s):
Just before we start the show, a quick message to say that I need your help. Whether you are a long term listener or you literally just found us, I would be incredibly grateful if you could go to and fill out a very short survey about this podcast. It won’t take longer than two minutes of your time and will be incredibly helpful to me as I develop Recruiting Future into 2023. Just to recap, the website address is and it will take just two minutes of your time to complete the survey.

Matt Alder (40s):
Go on, press pause, and do it right now.

Matt Alder (1m 2s):
Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 473 of the Recruiting Future Podcast. DE&I remains a major priority for employers, but progress is slow and sometimes completely stuck. How should companies be thinking about diversity and what practical actions can they take to build and benefit from teams of difference? My guest this week is writer, broadcaster, and consultant Simon Fanshawe. Simon is a well known figure in the UK and has recently published an excellent book, The Power Of Difference.

Matt Alder (1m 46s):
He advocates that progress comes when employers move away from the jargon around DE&I and genuinely understand how to build a diverse workforce which drives their specific business objectives. This is an absolute must listen interview. Hi, Simon, and welcome to the podcast.

Simon Fanshawe (2m 7s):
Well, thank you very much.

Matt Alder (2m 9s):
An absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Now, many people listening will be familiar with you and your work, but there may be some people who aren’t. Please, could you introduce yourself, tell us what you do, and how you got to do it?

Simon Fanshawe (2m 23s):
It’s mainly because I’ve had a slight brush with the media over my life so I’m a subregional delist non and people I spend most of my life as if I’m at a cousin’s wedding, people looking at me. My name is Simon Fanshawe. I work now in the field of diversity, really to try and get people to acknowledge that this is a human question. It’s not a question of acronyms and specialist knowledge. We try to help organizations transform both the opportunities they offer to people in up and across their organizations.

Simon Fanshawe (3m 10s):
Also then, to think about what true diversity means. In other words, how you combine the different things that people bring to organizations? That’s what I do and I spend most of my time either working within organizations, doing that, standing on my high legs, chatting on about it, sitting down like this, chatting on about it, and then I sat down for six months and wrote a book about it called The Power Of Difference. I do that in a way that’s as jolly as it can be.

Matt Alder (3m 38s):
Diversity and inclusion has been a massive topic amongst Talent Acquisition and HR professionals, well, for a long time, but particularly for the last two or three years. Lots of employers saying it’s their number one priority. However, as we look back, we’re not really getting very far with it, are we?

Simon Fanshawe (3m 58s):
Well, change is slow and it’s quite small. Equally, there are some fantastic things going on and there’s some unreal advances. You’d be an absolute fool to take a catastrophe view that nothing’s change, all that black people experience this racism, all the gay people experience as homophobia, all that women experience as sexism, and that is it. I often say that prejudice may still be an everyday event, but it’s no longer an all day event now. There have been huge strides and you can see it in some of the changes, particularly, in the top of organizations where there were real bottlenecks or ceilings. What I think is not happening is that people are not really going beyond the big group analysis of diversity in other words, because it started as looking at deficits and opportunity and deficits in treatment.

Simon Fanshawe (4m 56s):
Everything from just not getting the job to being harassed, to just having a horrible time because it started there, and quite rightly, an attempt to do something about that. To some extent, it got stuck there notwithstanding that there’s progress and notwithstanding there’s another element to this. I call that the deficits. The other element is this question, the diversity dividend. The starting point for me is that organizations are made up of people who are thrust together, frankly, randomly. We think that there’s an interview process, but you get in a room with a bunch of people. You don’t know them. You don’t have to like them. The only thing you’ve got in common is this thing that you’ve agreed to do.

Simon Fanshawe (5m 37s):
It doesn’t matter whether you’re in OX family, you’re trying to defeat hunger. You’re down in a some tech lab in Cambridge trying to and reinvent AI. Whatever it is you’re doing, or baking cheese, or something, you’ve got this common objective. We’re all gonna make cheese. The question is how do we collaborate best to make really good cheese? You do that through bringing your difference and combining your difference with other people’s differences. That is, at its core, what diversity is about. It’s about the fact that we are fundamentally different. What it’s become, I think, unfortunately, in some aspects or in quite a lot of the aspects, instead of being about the flowering of difference, it’s become about the imposition of a set of rules.

Simon Fanshawe (6m 24s):
Conversely and ironically, it’s diversity’s become a tool of conformity.

Matt Alder (6m 28s):
With all the positive intent and many employers paying lip service and saying it’s their priority, where is it specifically that they’re getting stuck and falling into that trap that you described there?

Simon Fanshawe (6m 42s):
Well, the first thing is about why. It’s that, for instance, there are in the top 300 jobs of the foot of the quoted company. If you look at chair chief and chief finance officer, why is it there are more white men called John, David, and Andrew than women or people of color? Now, you could say, “Well, this is to do with structural racism. It’s to do with structural sexism.” There is no doubt about it that racism and sexism is a background to that, but actually, the mechanism that’s going on there is really about what those people who are making those appointments value in the people that they’re appointing. What they’re valuing is what they’ve already got. In other words, there’s an image in their head of what a chief finance officer looks like or a chair of a board looks like.

Simon Fanshawe (7m 27s):
Typically, you find that boards are full of people who’ve had executive experience in big companies that are similar. My point is not that you don’t want them, my point is you don’t only want them. Your question is why has there not been so much progress? I think the reason, one of the core reasons there’s not been so much progress is that people are not thinking about building teams of difference the whole time. They’re not valuing a range of things. I’ll give you an example. I chair a board, and there is a board member, and we’ve just recently launched a very successful bond.

Simon Fanshawe (8m 7s):
We had to go to a series of meetings, which were pretty tough because it’s technically quite complicated business. I certainly didn’t understand it as we went into it so you really had to have your wits about you, but something really interesting happened. She turned up at the board meeting where we had to make a particular financial decision and she said at the beginning of the meeting, “I’m really sorry this is all moving fast. The papers only came out yesterday. I have no time to read them. I’m just gonna have to ask questions.” She asked the best question and I said to her afterwards, “I don’t think you should ever read the finance papers.” The reason I said that was that if you’re not a finance person, which I am not, what happens is it’s easy to drown yourself and lose confidence. Now what am I saying?

Simon Fanshawe (8m 48s):
What I’m saying is that there’s a value because, on the other side of the table, I’ve got Paul, I’ve got Ian, I’ve got these other board members who are absolutely financially really on top of it. They know what they’re talking about. It’s the combination of those things that produces the really good oversight and risk. I think one of the big reasons why we we’re not making advances is we are genuinely not valuing the difference that people can bring. We have standard job descriptions and the thing about that is you can’t unlearn all those preconceptions that you’ve learned about what a chairman looks like, what a chief finance officer, what a good board member looks like.

Simon Fanshawe (9m 29s):
What you have to do is you have to redesign the process. You can’t just unlearn it. I often think slightly rude analogy this, but when you’re on the lose sometimes and it’s not as easy to do it as you hope and you’re sitting there and you know that’s not how you create greater diversity by trying to overcome your bodily will. You can’t do it by force of will. You have to redesign the process so you can make better decisions.

Matt Alder (9m 57s):
Obviously, that’s what a lot of employers want to do and are looking to do. What’s your advice in terms of things they might be doing that aren’t really gonna work for them, the ways that they should be thinking, and the things that they should be doing to really embrace that value and get that dividend that you’re talking about?

Simon Fanshawe (10m 18s):
This is true about the organization of putting together teams as much as it is about individuals. The first thing they need to do is to be really clear about what kind of diversity is going to help them do what they do better. Remember the deficits and the dividends. Yes, you’ve gotta unlock the discrimination of whatever’s going on there. That’s the question of really understanding it. That’s the first thing you have to do, really understand the data. Don’t stop at the headline of, “Oh, it’s sexism.” It may well be, but actually exactly what’s going on? Back to my Foote example. You can point your finger at those people and say, “You’re a bunch of sexist,” or you can say to them, “Hang on a second.

Simon Fanshawe (10m 58s):
Let’s think about a board differently.” The first thing is to understand exactly what you’re doing and why and what kind of diversity because it’s not a recipe. Diversity is not a question of two blacks, one woman, and three gay, add water, and stir. It’s not magical. It doesn’t work like that. You’ve gotta be very precise through that. For instance, if you look at the big heavy industries like mining, engineering, or the power industries, why would they want to have a different balance of men and women? Well, because they’ve, by and large, got an older male workforce. They’ve got a narrowing pipeline and they’ve got a numbers problem in 5, 10, 15 years. Actually, the point about appealing to women is to broaden the pipeline and widen the opportunities.

Simon Fanshawe (11m 45s):
Secondly, that helps them to widen the range of skills that they bring in the industries, which are now massively transferring from bra to brain. Instead of going, “We need more women,” actually, women don’t give as a job lot. You need to know what kind of women, how you’re broadening the pipeline, and then what you’re valuing and what those individual women are bringing. It’s that kind of thing. It’s what you would do with any other strategy which they don’t do with diversity. For some reason, people stop at the first post and accuracy. A lot of this is about accuracy. When you do it with a job, you see, I have this thing called the virtuous circle of selection.

Simon Fanshawe (12m 27s):
It’s like you’re pointing a job to a team. You say, “What’s the team trying to do? Make cheese. What kind of combination of difference will help us make cheese better? What is that cultural? Is that what is it? Who have we got? Do we want to add in order to another example? English department and a big university head of department said to us, “Want a diverse staff.” I said, “Why? What problem are you trying to solve? You got great staff, great research, great income, great student attainments, all kind of gang classes. What’s your problem?” This person said, “It’s really simply stated. There is great English literature being written in the world by people who are not English.”

Simon Fanshawe (13m 9s):
The book of prize winning yesterday. This probably is gonna go out timewise. The latest book prize winner is a Sri Lankan so there’s great English literature being written by people. What she wants in her department is to reflect that state of the contemporary English. She doesn’t want ethnic diversity. She wants geographic and cultural diversity so that it’s trying to think like that about exactly what it is. Then you alter your job processes to challenge the assumptions you otherwise make about who you want.

Matt Alder (13m 39s):
A number of organizations are looking at things like unconscious bias, training, building employee resource groups, those kind of tactics, I suppose, to achieve this. What’s your view on that?

Simon Fanshawe (13m 51s):
Well, to take both those separately, the unconscious bias is problematic because it’s based on this thing called the Harvard Implicit Association Test. Many of you will know it, but just to recap in case you don’t, you’re asked and speed is the metric. You’re asked to make an association between pictures and words. Some of the words are negative. Some of the words are positive. Some of the pictures are, say, black or white. Some of the pictures are women or men, et cetera. What it said, what it purports to do is to judge whether or not you’ve got these hidden prejudices, several methodological problems with it. Number one. Is speed is that indeed an indicator of the fact that you’ve got these hidden prejudices?

Simon Fanshawe (14m 32s):
Secondly, you have to have a cutoff line to say whether you are biased. You aren’t biased. Actually, is that arbitrary or not? The other thing is that there’s no evidence now and the people invented this thing now, there’s nothing to suggest that, actually, if you have an unconscious bias, you necessarily that we don’t want you to think and no, I would say unconscious bias is pointless because actually what it allows everybody to do is go, well, everybody feels biased. The more you talk about bias, the research tells us the more that people just assume it’s a given so they don’t try and challenge it. There’s methodological problems with it but I think there’s another problem which is this idea that if everybody thinks bias is pervasive, what happens is people start to price it in.

Simon Fanshawe (15m 16s):
They go, “Oh well, you know a few.” It’s not me actually. The thing with biases, you have to find ways of challenging yourself. I don’t find unconscious bias a very helpful concept because actually you have to be simply aware of the things you’ve learned because unconscious bias is a very useful thing when you’re crossing the road because it’s an unthinking learnt response and you don’t walk out in front of moving cars. This is a good thing. The toughie club, if you’re old enough to remember that. This is a good thing, but it’s not a good thing when it comes to judging people standing by the bus stop black. This is for me and my husband. Black guy goes past in the smart convertible I think, “Oh, I wonder who he is.” That five minutes is a true story. Five minutes later, why five minutes?

Simon Fanshawe (15m 56s):
How good of the bus is and Brighton, not a very good white guy goes past a bus in a smart convertible and I go, “Oh, nice car.” Now that’s because I’ve learned images about black guys in smart cars. Now, that’s not an unconscious bias. That’s something I have to learn about and so I know what people are saying but it’s in your control. Whereas the unconscious bias idea feels like it’s not in your control, but it’s not in your control. As I said before, by just going, “Hmm,” you actually have to find different ways of designing the way in which you see information. It’s very interesting. If you look in recruitment, we’ve just finished a project which was semi successful in an academic institution and one of the reasons it was only semi successful was I could not get them off CVs no matter how hard I tried.

Simon Fanshawe (16m 49s):
What we do with this information, you see, we developed this system where you say, “What exactly do I want back to English language department? What do I want? I want cultural and geographic difference. Okay, so this is what I’m gonna look for.” I’m gonna devise a set of questions that criteria that meet that, then I’m gonna turn those criteria into scenarios because that’s the best predictor of future work. Then what I’m gonna do is I’m gonna reorganize that information when I give it to the selection panel so that when the candidates have written in, I’m going to then give it to the selection panel with all the answers to the first scenario and all the answers to the second scenario, with no personal information. This gives you a really good opportunity to judge the evidence that applicants provided against the criteria that you explicitly developed.

Simon Fanshawe (17m 36s):
They would not do that except reverting to CVs. The thing I kept on saying to them, “What do you want out of CVs? What are you trying to get out of looking at them?” Of course, what they talk about is research quality, what their careers been. You say, “Look, research quality. Okay, where was the latest article published? Somebody else peer reviewed that if you respect the magazine and they did it on their own, well that’s so we can find proxies for things, but actually, what they were looking for, they were really looking for was comfort that they fulfilled the assumptions they had in their mind about what they wanted. What I’m constantly trying to do is challenge that and redesign the process so we are unable to challenge our assumptions.

Simon Fanshawe (18m 18s):
The problem with the unconscious buying bias and training is that starts a conversation, but it doesn’t create the change. How many of us have been on courses we go through the day? It’s fantastic. We go, “Oh God, that’s so great,” and we go back in a day later, we’re buried in our to-do list again and all that just goes down as a really interesting thing that we did.

Matt Alder (18m 40s):
The CV thing, I still can’t quite get my head around why we still use CVs or consider them so important. The way you described it there, it really is just one step away from analyzing someone’s handwriting. They could do the job basically.

Simon Fanshawe (19m 1s):
It’s interesting this thing too of this really interesting research by Iris Barnett at Harvard who’s our research mentor, but she did some really interesting research. What’s the most accurate predictor of future success? It’s undoubtedly giving people real work scenarios to respond to. We just did a really good one. It was a great process for a chief operating officer of a big health trust hospital. One of the questions that was completely brilliant, “So this Friday afternoon and the water goes off, what do you do now if they’d asked a question? Give us an understanding of your approach to business as usual policies in the context of utility failures.”

Simon Fanshawe (19m 44s):
Well you can BS that question, but you can’t BS, “It’s Friday afternoon. You’re about to go home and the water goes off.” You either know what to do in that situation or you don’t. What I always say to people is when you are asking these questions in the application, think of scenarios and tie them down as accurately as possible. You’re doing three things in this de-biasing process. We call it Recruiting for difference, for explicit about who you’re looking for. You’re trying to get rid of the assumptions, be absolutely explicit about, and have a discussion with the others about really who are we looking for around the virtuous circle of selection.

Simon Fanshawe (20m 25s):
The second thing is turn those criteria into really detailed scenarios so you really know what people can bring to you. The third thing is you reorganize their answers in this way. Iris calls it joint selection. All the answers to the first scenario, all the answers the second, and what it gives you is an evidence base, which is as DE&I biased, as objective as possible. Look, you can’t summon up a pipeline where the pipeline that’s diverse. I get that so it’s not gonna solve every problem, but it does absolutely appeal in a different way to people and it gives all the candidates a fair shot. We did one in an engineering department again and university and we got this great response from a woman who said, “I felt like I was invited as a woman and assessed as a scientist.”

Simon Fanshawe (21m 13s):
I just felt that was the right balance because they really wanted to attract quality women candidates. They made a lot of effort, which in engineering’s tough, but she really felt she got absolute fair traffic of the whip, which is a key thing inside the process.

Matt Alder (21m 26s):
Coming back to employee resource groups, I suppose looking at that in the context of Iiclusion in general, how should employers be thinking about that?

Simon Fanshawe (21m 39s):
One of the problems with them is that they can become grumble hubs and that’s because they get very internally focused and it happens for in two ways. One is it’s internally focused. The first thing to do is to say to the employee resource group, “We are setting you up and resourcing you because we want to hear your voices, not voice voices and contribution to our contributions to the development and implementation of our company strategy. In other words, this is not about you. This is about our collective effort and it’s giving you a voice in our collective effort.” Number one. Secondly is that one of the problems with back to the deficit point I was making earlier on, you’ve gotta be really careful about caroling people into these big acronyms and big categories.

Simon Fanshawe (22m 29s):
As I said before, women don’t come as a job a lot. If you’re gonna describe women and use that as a category, you’re doing it because you understand that women, as a group, experience certain kinds of discrimination and you’re trying to find out exactly what that group experiences, and therefore, the nature of the discrimination and therefore the nature of the solution. You’ve got to be really, really accurate about that. Another one, somebody said to me recently, “Are you LGBT?” I said, “Well you can’t be all of them.” What is that group? Describe if you’re gonna have policies about LGBT. Well, these are all gonna be about pensions and compassionate leave. They’re partnership based things really, and that whatever, if you’re gonna have policies around trans people who are transitioning, that’s gonna be around health time off.

Simon Fanshawe (23m 17s):
These are very different things. What I’m saying is that you have to be very careful about how you group people together. So BA is mad. BA encompasses everybody’s not white apparently. it doesn’t encounter people who experience racism who are white. that’s one problematic with it but you’re ramming together people who’ve got Asian backgrounds, Caribbean backgrounds, religions, faith, family shapes. They’re a lot. You’re bugging them into this great clowns pocket of a category and saying, “You are both ludicrous,” but what they all understand that group of people is they understand racism.

Simon Fanshawe (23m 57s):
Remember, one, you gotta think about what you’re doing when you put together those categories. That means you have to recognize that in each category, there are massive ranges of opinions, aspirations, talents, styles, et cetera. The first thing is when you set up the employee resource group, focus it on the strategy of the company. Secondly, don’t think that it’s got a single voice. Don’t allow gatekeepers to set themselves up in those things to say we are the gay voice. No, you’re not, love. Actually, it turns out there’s big disagreements about a whole bunch of stuff. I spent so much of my life fighting for gay equality was precisely not so we had to be all the same. It was precisely so we could all be different and live our lives.

Simon Fanshawe (24m 40s):
It goes on, but there are common experiences. The first thing is strategy. Second, recognize as you will have some common experiences, women understand something about negotiating big organizations that they can share with other women that’s valuable in career terms. Supporting and mentoring each other, that’s another good function. The third thing I always say in employee resource groups is have sessions for the whole company or the whole department of whatever, which are about key strategic issues for the company that are not about you. Don’t endlessly do the women’s network on women if you are in Rolls Royce or I don’t know, aortics or something.

Simon Fanshawe (25m 22s):
Do it on the marginal power relationship to fuel. I don’t know what people who design air engines talk about, but what they talk about is how you can get less fuel, heavier fuel for more power. You get a better jet engine. Do the meeting on that because that way, you put yourself into the center of what the company’s really about. You move yourself from being minority status at the periphery into the major things that the company’s talking, thinking, and worrying about.

Matt Alder (25m 51s):
Final question. Tell us a bit more about your book. Where can people get it and how people can connect with you?

Simon Fanshawe (25m 56s):
The book, I don’t want to obviously overestimate yours, but its fabulous. It’s to say that’s even absolutely terrible. I’m supposed to sit here, say absolutely marvelous.

Matt Alder (26m 9s):
Well, it was also released the same week as my book.

Simon Fanshawe (26m 20s):
What I’ve tried to do in it is I’ve really tried to humanize this idea and center this idea of diversity inclusion around this notion of human difference. The idea that we can’t understand each other, but the great joy is to try and do so. That’s what lies at the heart of this. I’ve tried to take out all the jargon and make this profoundly human. Secondly, I’ve added lots of stories of extraordinary people that I’ve met over the years to try and illustrate that in ways that are different from just the theoretical. Thirdly, I’ve tried to put in some practical or helpful hints.

Simon Fanshawe (27m 4s):
At the end of each chapter, you could try this, which is jolly. I quite like it. I know that’s a silly thing to say about one, but I quite like it because it’s not just a business book. I found, to my real pleasure, lots of people who aren’t professionally involved in this actually have enjoyed it. That’s a real pleasure. I’ve tried to open it up because I don’t think this is a technical subject, which actually we diversity people, we know about these things – intersectionality and fragility and privilege, and we’ve invented a whole language around this stuff, which is designed to stop other people in our companies understanding what’s going on so that we can educate them. This is absolute nonsense.

Simon Fanshawe (27m 49s):
We’re all experts on diversity because we’re all human. I’ve tried to take it back to that really. It’s available everywhere and on bookshops and it’s published by page and get on theirs. If you wanna get in touch with me, there’s either our diversity by design website or

Matt Alder (28m 6s):
Simon, thank you very much for talking to me.

Simon Fanshawe (28m 12s):
Real pleasure. Thank you.

Matt Alder (28m 13s):
My thanks to Simon.

Matt Alder (28m 54s):
You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at On that site, you can also subscribe to the mailing list to get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks so much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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