Blog - Global view

The diversity dilemma

Diversity in the workplace can impact the bottom line, says Giulietta Bergamaschi of Lexellent.

Santhosh Kumar

There was good news recently  from Italian pasta maker Barilla which announced on Monday November 4th the creation of a new Diversity & Inclusion Board in order to “establish concrete goals and stratetegies for improving diversity and equality in the company’s workforce and culture.”  The timing of this announcement coincided with the 1st conference of its type in Italy, organised by Il Sole 24 Ore, L’Impresa the magazine for Italian management and Lexellent, on the subject of Discrimination, Diversity and Equal Opportunities - which also took place on Monday, 4th November. 

The event hosted many notable speakers from the academic, legal, human resource management and professional business world who gave insights into their experiences of managing diversity within the workplace.
In reference to Barilla, let us not look backwards on the reasons behind their decision  “to establish a more active, global leadership position on diversity, inclusion and social responsibility” – but instead let us look forward to the impact that an intiative such as this may have on  businesses in Italy in addition to Human Resource management at the national level.

At the conference in Milan on 4th November  we were introduced to several challenges and points of view concerning the delicate subject of managing diversity within the workforce in Italy – from the points of view of gender, political, religious, and sexual orientation. One aspect which came particularly clear is that the management of diversity within the workplace in traditional Italian companies is not very advanced in practice when compared with overseas counterparts.

This was no more evident in a presentation give by Valerio Di Bussolo the Head of External Relations of IKEA in Italy who shared with the audience a part of the company’s very remarkably inclusive equal opportunities policy which they recently implemented in May 2011.  Among the clauses is the recognition of the rights of same sex couples whether they are living together, have a civil union, or are legally married.  In addition, an employee in a same sex relationship will have the right to take time off to care for their partner’s child as if it is was their own if required.  For the anglo-saxon world this is perhaps nothing  special – however in a country where the government does not recognise or permit the marriage between to people of the same sex this is truly an extraordinary policy to find within an Italian employee handbook.
Diversity in the workplace can have an even more important impact on business ... in fact an impact on the bottom line. 

As Sandra Mori, General Counsel  Europe of the Coca Cola Company pointed out during the event, there is statistical evidence that indicates that Fortune 500 companies which have at least 3 females on their Board of Directors perform better than those companies which have none.  These statistics come from the report The Bottom Line: Corporate Performace and Women’s Representation on Boards 2004 – 2008, published by the Catalyst group in 2011.

For the Italian market, this is a very important point to note.  Perhaps impossible for the anglo-saxon market to believe, but true, is that prior to July 2011 there was not one female on the Board of Directors of any of the 250 companies listed on the Italian stock exchange.  Fortunately this balance in now changing.  However, on the other hand, it is unfortunate that it has taken a government law (Law No. 120/2011) to make this change.  In fact, all companies listed on the Italian stock exhange – as well as business controlled by the Italian public administration - are required to have at least one-fifth of their Board  represented by ‘less represented groups’ (read women,) upon their 1st new board appointment since the law was passed.  With the successive second and third appointments of new board members this number must rise to one-third.  In order to reinforce this legislation, if the relevant businesses do not follow the rules they will be fined, and if they continue afterwards to flout the regulations then by law the Board of Directors will be dissolved and new elections will need to take place. 

Diversity and equal opportunities in the workplace is still a concept in evolution in the Italian working world.  It is a concept which will continue to become more and more important in the corporate environment as the Italian labour market, and the regulations which govern it, change to meet the needs of both the economy and society.  This is no more evident that with the Fornero Labour reforms of July 2012 which have led to a noticeable increase in the number of employees contesting, that is appealing, their dismissals on the basis of discrimination.  

We welcome this initiative by Barilla (although we still need to see how this will impact their Italian workforce) as it brings a very delicate subject into the spot light – and will hopefully make all corporate activities more aware of both the benefits of managing the culture of diversity in the workplace… and the dangers if you don’t.

Giulietta Bergamaschi is a partner at LEXELLENT


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15 November 2013

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