‘I get called out a lot. Everyone expects me to be perfect on diversity, but truth is I’m not. No one is’

Asif Sadiq Photo

We talk to award-winning diversity specialist, Asif Sadiq, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at Warner Bros, about the change he’s seen over 20 years and what he’d like to see in future.

Sadiq has worked for a raft of well known brands, from adidas and The Telegraph Media Group to EY Financial Services and the City of London Police. He’s also worked in Europe, North America, the Middle East and Africa, picking up a plethora of awards along the way.

Given his experience, there’s no better person to be part of the launch team of speakers of our inaugural DE&I Symposium, happening at this year’s MAD World Summit on 12th October 2023. This will cover topics including building a successful DE&I strategy, using data-driven DE&I to achieve culture change, neurodiversity, allyship, racial equity and how to take an inclusive approach to recruitment.

You can register for the MAD World Summit and the DE&I Symposium here

You’ve worked across so many different industries and both the private and public sector – are there any common learnings that you’ve picked up on?

Definitely. The big learning, especially in global companies, is understanding that diversity is different in different parts of the world but inclusion is the same, no matter where you are. The desire to feel a sense of inclusion does not change whether you’re in Brazil or Singapore or the UK, but what might work in one region won’t necessarily work in another.

The other big thing I’ve learnt is that no one’s perfect and there isn’t a perfect way of doing anything. What’s important is that we, the people working in this space, keep trying and keep listening.

We’ve recently seen how ‘cancel culture’ can contribute to people being hesitant to try. What are your thoughts on how social media has changed the diversity challenge?

We need to focus on not calling people out… by calling people in

We need to ask: how do you bring people into the conversation? 

When a mistake does happen or something goes wrong, how do we create a learning opportunity? 

That goes beyond just company initiatives but is relevant on an individual level, too.

Can you explain more what you mean by ‘calling in’?

It’s the understanding that if I make a mistake – for example, if someone uses the wrong term or phrases something clumsily, then rather than call them out, it is better to explain why. For instance, you could say something like: “I know you probably didn’t intend to offend, but this might be a better way to say…..”

We want people to learn and no one is an expert on this topic. Every single person can learn more.

Terminology can be difficult. For instance, it can be hard to know whether to use ‘Black’ to describe someone or ‘person of colour’. What would be your advice on terminology?

One of the challenges is that every single person is individual. If you interviewed my brother, who looks very similar to me, he will give you completely different answer on how he would like to be referred to. We can’t make assumptions about what individuals want.

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So how would you deal with the fact that different people in the room might want to be referred to differently?

What I tend to do is create a safety net for myself before the conversation.

I might say something like: “hey look I’m not sure what the best term to use in this situation is, what would you like me to use?”

Do you get called out on your terminology ever?

Yes.  I get called out a lot. Everyone expects me to be perfect on diversity, but truth is I’m not. No one is.

Of course, I have biases. I have to be consciously inclusive in everything I do. And sometimes things come out my mouth the wrong way. But it’s all about learning and growing.

How good do you think we are at handling conflict at work?

The world seems to be getting more divided. My view is that this is happening because we’ve not created environments where it’s okay for us to disagree. Just because we have different views, doesn’t mean we can’t still work together effectively and respect each other.

How can workplaces play a role in helping people disagree more effectively?

We have to create environments where employees can come together with those different views to create. They need to be places where people have that sense of belonging where they can be their authentic self. 

What is the danger of not having a sense of belonging among employees at work?

You end up with group thinking. Traditionally, that’s been thought of as when the men of a certain age and background are in the majority, but it can be when any group thinks the same way, because that’s the opposite of diversity. To have the best innovation and creativity we need different views and lived experiences.

It’s the same with neurodiversity. I’m neurodiverse myself (dyslexic) and I believe we need to stop ‘fixing’ people but instead allow people to think differently and operate their own way to achieve their goals. Workplaces need to be more adaptive and not set up for what is perceived to be ‘normal’ because that doesn’t work for everyone.

What have you learnt about being neurodiverse in the workforce?

For me, it’s been great talking about it, but I put that partly down to the fact I’m in a senior role. I openly talk about how I can’t spell to save my life but I can do other things that others can’t.

When I reflect on my early career years, my biggest mistake was that I focused too much on trying to fix my weaknesses but never honed in on my strengths. I am never going to be great at spelling or reading long documents. But I’m very good at presentations and problem solving because of the way my brain works. I should have doubled down on that much earlier in my career, and that’s what I’d advise others to do.

How can we create environments where people are better able to play to their strengths?

By taking away outdated systems and processes which don’t make sense anymore.

Like the recruitment process, from job descriptions to psychometric testing to interviewing. I feel strongly that we need to look more at the future than the past; so in interviews not asking applicants what they’ve done in the past, but what they’d do in different situations in the future. These answers are a better predictor of future success in a world where technology is changing everything in our workplaces so quickly.

The workplace needs to be disrupted by understanding that every system we have created was created for whatever the majority was at the time… how do we change that to create new ways?

The Barbie movie has certainly got the diversity conversation going in the mainstream, as well as being phenomenally commercially successful. Tell me your thoughts on that.

That film (made by Warner Bros) had a female director. It shows the power of diversity in creating business benefits, but also in breaking down stereotypes and assumptions.

Similarly we’re working on a Wonder Woman game right now and we’re spending a lot of time ensuring it’s inclusive. I love seeing this, as when I was gaming growing up there was never anyone who looked like me. 

It was subconscious cues like this which meant when I graduated with a BA in Human Resource Management, I never saw myself working for a big company like Warner Bros because every case study of a successful business person I saw was a white man. Role models and case studies are so important because they help future generations.

How optimistic are you feeling about our ability to change and to create this type of working world where we are more tolerant of difference and create an environment that includes all?

I see the glass half full rather than half empty. I still believe we’ve got so many opportunities in this space to make a real difference. I’ve already seen great progress in the 20 years I’ve been working in diversity, before ‘diversity’ was even a thing. I’m very optimistic.

Asif Sadiq will be joining us at the DE&I Symposium within the MAD World Summit on 12th October, along with an an impressive roster of speakers from Age UK, BAM UK&I, BBC, Belron, BITC, Britvic, Costain, Deloitte, Dentsu, EY, Goldman Sachs, Heath Foundation, Heathrow, HSBC, IBM, Ipsos, Mars, Metro Bank, Microsoft, Mind, National Grid, Novartis, Unipart, Royal Bank of Scotland, Starbucks and many more

If you haven’t booked your tickets yet, don’t miss out. You can find full details and book here.

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