Diversity: Raising the bar – a Law in Practice feature

International law firm Herbert Smith turned to consultancy Inclusive Diversity to set up a holistic, long-term diversity strategy. Alison Rawstron explains.

Setting up a diversity policy can be a daunting task. Notice must be taken of a host of legislation, including race relations, sex and age discrimination, sexual orientation regulations, disability discrimination as well as the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations and the Part Time Workers Regulations.

Ian Gatt, chairman of the diversity committee at international legal practice Herbert Smith, is responsible for raising the profile of diversity issues across the business and is the principal point of contact for any staff concerns. “It’s the right thing for the business to do in terms of respecting people’s individual choices, needs and personalities,” says Gatt.

“It makes good business sense, because a diverse organisation is a good recruitment and retention tool. Also, our clients are increasingly diverse organisations and they are looking for diversity in companies they work with – it’s a virtuous circle.”

When Gatt and his diversity team embarked on a diversity and equality strategy, they knew they had a big job on their hands. With offices worldwide and 1,200 lawyers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, they needed to have clear goals, training and communication channels. To achieve this, they enlisted the help of Inclusive Diversity, a diversity consultancy and training organisation.

Training has formed a key element of the strategy. With the help of Inclusive Diversity, 1,400 staff members took part in a classroom-based two-hour interactive training session involving facilitators and actors between April and July 2007.

“We’ve raised awareness of diversity to a new level and made people realise that it’s not about political correctness but about fundamental values of treating people fairly and equally,” Gatt says. “The feedback has been positive.”

Inclusive Diversity managing director Sasha Scott thinks that for a diversity strategy to succeed, it has to be an organisational issue that is visibly backed by senior management. “If the management does not embrace and actively demonstrate a commitment to diversity then employees will not believe in the initiative. I think too often there is a disconnect between policy and practice – for true success diversity should not be viewed as a standalone initiative but seen in practice every day throughout an organisation.”

A new strategy

Herbert Smith formed an inclusivity group with six staff members in 2003 and then overhauled it in 2007. The changes echo its rising importance on the business agenda: it now has more than 20 members and two full-time dedicated staff, Gatt and Carolyn Lee, diversity manager.

The group consists of five strands: gender, sexual orientation, disability, work-life balance and ethnicity and social inclusion. Each strand has a champion or head and several other team members dedicated to it.

“Diversity is a huge subject and we wanted to create champions for the specific areas as we saw them,” says Gatt. The aim is for the champions to get to grips with the deeper issues in their area so they can devise initiatives and feed suggestions into the wider inclusivity group.

Various initiatives have been launched in these five key areas. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender network has held informal, low-key meetings to help build members’ confidence. It has also forged links with lobby group Stonewall.

The women’s network, which has recently celebrated its first anniversary, is holding a networking event for its 200 members to promote personal and professional development, with former MI5 chief Dame Stella Rimington as the guest speaker.

Other initiatives include an emergency care programme for staff with children or primary care responsibilities for elderly persons. It is a fully subsidised service that is offered to staff for an uncapped number of days. “We’re acknowledging that sometimes things don’t go according to plan,” says Lee.

In the pipeline is a maternity coaching scheme for women exiting and re-entering the workplace and a disability review of the working environment to ensure best practice is adopted. “The key for us is appropriate programmes, which we know from feedback would be welcomed by our staff,” Lee says.

The five champions also serve as a point of contact and represent a known face for staff to give feedback to. Lee thinks this is important for building trust and rapport. Employees’ opinions are regularly canvassed to inform ongoing work and the many channels for giving feedback should encourage informal and open comments from staff.

Communicating the aims and progress of the inclusivity group has been a key part of its success. Staff can find out about the diversity strategy on the company intranet, via its regular newsletter and at informal networking events.

Challenges

The biggest hurdle has been overcoming entrenched attitudes from staff members, says Gatt. “But once you’ve explained the principles and why it is good for people as individuals as well as the company as a whole, then they quickly come on board.”


In five steps

Implementing a diversity strategy

  1. Identify your goals. Know what you are looking to achieve and set realistic deadlines
  2. Know your business. Understand what is culturally right for your organisation and identify how a strategy will work in practice
  3. Top-down recognition is key. Buy-in from the management board is vital, giving a strategy importance and raising its profile in an organisation
  4. Bottom-up recognition makes it work. Engagement also comes from a grassroots level, because that is where it will be put into practice every day
  5. Communicate the message. Training and educating your staff will help you shift company culture and meet your long-term objectives

For more information

http://www.herbertsmith.com/

http://www.inclusivediversity.co.uk/

http://www.stonewall.org.uk/

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