Finland: HR managers regard diversity as strength for workplaces

The Diversity Barometer 2016, a survey-based study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, explores the perceptions and attitudes of human resources professionals to diversity in Finnish workplaces. It finds that the key aspects of diversity are age and age-related issues, language and ethnicity, and that professionals in the field see workplace diversity as strength.  

About the study

Diversity is an increasingly important factor in Finnish working life. The rising retirement age and increasing immigration means that workers span a wider age range and have broader cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds. This brings challenges to work organisation, as structures and processes have to be adapted to facilitate communication and to support inclusiveness. Human resources (HR) staff are key to these efforts. Their insights into working life trends and development needs are a valuable source of information. Their attitudes and beliefs can significantly influence the development of their organisations.

The Diversity Barometer 2016 is based on a survey conducted by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH), which investigates perceptions and attitudes of HR professionals concerning diversity at Finnish workplaces. The dimensions of diversity primarily explored include age, gender, family situation, ethnic background, language, sexual orientation, disabilities, partial work capacity, and religion and conviction.

The Diversity Barometer has five different sections with the following foci:

  • the general importance of different dimensions of diversity at workplaces and the meaning of diversity for the functioning of organisations;
  • the impact of ethnic, age and gender diversity of employees on various aspects of work communities such as managerial work, social relations, information flows, customer service and work organisation;
  • professional skills of employees and their development needs, with special attention to immigrants;
  • discrimination and other obstacles to career advancement;
  • respondents’ personal opinions of and attitudes to diversity.

The study was carried out by FIOH researchers. Data collection was conducted in cooperation with the following organisations:

  • Finnish Association of for Human Resources Management (HENRY), an organisation of HR professionals in the public and private sectors;
  • the local government employer association, KT;
  • Finnish Food and Drink Industries’ Federation (ETL);
  • Real Estate Services Association (Kiinteistöpalvelut ry).

HENRY and KT also contributed to the formulation of the survey. The research was funded by the Finnish Work Environment Fund and is part of a research programme entitled Matching Work and Knowhow at Increasingly Multicultural Workplaces.

Similar studies were carried out in 2007 and 2011, although the survey has been modified since then.

Methodology

Data were collected in spring 2016 through a web-based survey that included open-ended and multiple choice questions. An invitation to participate was sent to:

  • members of HENRY;
  • HR managers working for KT;
  • HR staff working for member companies of ETL and the Real Estate Services Association.

In the invitation sent to HENRY members, private-sector employees were specified. 

More than 3,500 people received an invitation, but only 255 people responded. Of these, 191 were female, 120 were members of HENRY, 116 worked for local government and the remaining 19 were employees of ETL and the Real Estate Services Association member companies. The respondents worked for organisations of varying sizes, but 75% reported that their organisations had 100 or more employees.

Due to the relatively low response rate and the consequently low representativeness, the results should be regarded as directional rather than absolute.

Key findings

Importance of diversity

The respondents found age, partial work capacity and language to be the most important dimensions of diversity for their organisations, more than 50% judging these dimensions important or very important. Sexual orientation and religion were thought least significant. The future importance of the different dimensions was expected to remain relatively stable, but around 40% thought that language, ethnicity and partial work capacity would increase in significance. Language, ethnicity and religion were also the only dimensions for which perceived future importance had increased since the 2007 and 2011 surveys. Diversity aspects are reportedly taken into account, especially in management (64% reported this to be ‘important’ or ‘very important’) and to some extent in other functions. However, it is notable that in 2011 diversity was overall thought significantly more important for all organisational functions.

Impacts of ethnic, age and gender diversity

Focusing on the impacts of age, gender and ethnicity on the different elements of a work community, age and ethnicity were believed to have noticeable effects, while gender was generally not regarded as a significant impact factor. Both ethnic and age diversity were seen to influence above all managerial work and social relations. In addition, age was found to particularly affect skills development and management, while ethnic diversity influences information flow and communications. Effects were generally estimated to be both positive and negative, yet more on the positive side. Potential negative impacts are believed to relate to different values and working modes as well as to language.

Skills development needs

The respondents saw the most significant skills development needs in employees’ self-management skills for tasks, workload, planning and innovation, information and communications technology (ICT) and social media proficiency. For employees with immigrant backgrounds, the main development needs were language skills and formal education, and better professional understanding of the Finnish context. Interestingly, immigrant employees were perceived to have slightly better ICT skills, and to be better at creativity, stress management and self-management than the rest of the workforce. Immigrant employees were also thought to contribute to the broadening of professional skills and cultural understanding within organisations.

Career advancement

As many as 81% of respondents thought that partial work capacity could be an obstacle to reaching managerial positions, due to the high levels of availability and performance they demand. Around 20% estimated age, sexual identity and ethnicity to be potentially problematic for career advancement. Ethnicity was to a large extent seen as tied to an immigrant background and would indicate a need for improved language skills and understanding of Finnish culture and working life. However, discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity was perceived to be a problem and to limit career progression.

HR staff attitudes to diversity

Overall, 87% respondents saw diversity as a strength for Finnish workplaces, a significant increase since 2007 (82%) and 2011 (80%). Furthermore, Finnish language skills were now thought less necessary for recruitment and manifestations of diversity seem more acceptable than before. However, fewer respondents in the latest survey found that the special needs of different groups within an organisation should be taken into account (68%, compared with 75% in 2011). The majority think that outer symbols of diversity should not be exhibited at work. A higher proportion of respondents than in previous surveys thought a foreign-sounding name might potentially impede access to job interviews.

Commentary

The Diversity Barometer results have presumably been influenced by certain major societal developments.

First, prolonging careers has long been a predominant political objective. Study time has been limited to speed up graduation and a pension reform raising the retirement age will come into force in 2017. This will necessarily heighten the relevance of age-related issues in work organisations.

Second, the influx of asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016 intensified the debate around migrant employment, manifested in increased concern about language, ethnicity and religion. However, the seemingly lessening emphasis on language skills is encouraging for migrant employment, as previous research has shown that deficient language skills constitute the main obstacle to employment for non-Finnish workers.

Finally, it seems that scarce resources as a result of weak economic growth in recent years may have undermined interest in accommodating special needs.

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