Shipping Can Profit from Embracing Diversity

Shipping, by its very nature, is a diverse industry. It covers the whole of Planet Earth, barring a few landlocked locations. It is the main provider of trade transport for the peoples of the world, and thus is a natural promoter of prosperity and peace. Shipping employs people from every culture, every nation, of every colour, and of every creed. Prejudices and bigotry are, by and large, displaced by a simple rule of thumb: can you do the job? Over the quarter century of my shipping career, I have heard ever-fewer derogatory terms bandied about in offices. Most bigots, where they do persist, understand the advantages in keeping their prejudices to themselves in a corporate environment.

There are nonetheless some diversity issues for shipping to grapple in a world in which identity politics is replacing class politics. Gender, sexuality, age, race all remain prickly issues for personnel managers. One growing issue is indeed self-identification and the need for employers to offer support for minority and non-normative self-identification. Employees on the spectrum of sexuality, race and gender may have come to terms with their self-identity, but has the company? To get the best out of employees, a company has to be willing to support them, within reasonable bounds, so that they can answer “Yes” to the question, “Can you do the job?”

In some industries, companies have become used to developing a diversity and Inclusion policy. Such a policy is not a cynical box-ticking exercise designed to demonstrate a ‘proper’ mix of employees .It is part of the company culture which says, “we are happiest with you when you are happy with yourself and we demonstrate your value to us by the way we value and support you.” This is not touchy-feely HR hogwash. Academic and commercial studies repeatedly and consistently have shown that there are measurable commercial advantages to introducing a diversity and inclusion policy. These include increased productivity, reduced staff churn / better retention, and higher profits.

There are additional ‘soft’ benefits too including higher levels of staff engagement, a wider range of skills, cultural insights aiding customer service and an improved corporate reputation. A company that does well by its employees is perceived to be one that will do well by its customers too. In a Forbes article, writer Tendayi Viki points out “Research on creativity and innovation has been consistent in showing the value of exposing individuals to experiences with multiple perspectives and world views. It is the combination of these various perspectives in novel ways that result in new ideas “popping up.”

The shipping industry can be very conservative. It has a reputation for changing slowly and reluctantly. But the markets change all the time. The freight market prior to China’s accession to the WTO at the end of 2001 was a very different market to our market today. The oil and gas shipping markets have changed considerably since the US shale revolution, which put paid to America’s environmental Banana policy (Banana = Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) and created whole new shipping trades for oil and gas, including a brand new ethane trade.

Ship finance has changed too, as the traditional banks have to cope with increased regulatory oversight and have even developed an environmental conscience, as the Poseidon Principles testify. We have witnessed the rise of Asian financiers and innovative forms of funding from lease deals to shariah finance. Even in a world of Trump trade wars and Brexit, shipping is shaping up to improve its customer relationships by opening up to non-normative cultures.

That’s why I’m proud to be a founder of the Diversity Study Group, which aims to provide research and support to shipping and trading companies who want to embrace a corporate culture that supports diversity for financial as well as cultural enrichment. There’s more information on our website.