HR leads Ford’s diversity drive

When thinking about best practice examples of diversity and women’s rights, Ford’s manufacturing plant in Dagenham doesn’t immediately spring to mind. With a workforce that is still 92% male, the traditional stereotypes of a politically incorrect factory floor are still predominant.

But Jenny Ball and three other female colleagues have broken the mould with their recent appointments to lead HR functions in the four business units at the plant.

“We all do our jobs as managers first and foremost, but we also have ambassadorial roles too,” Ball told Personnel Today. “I suppose as the first all-woman HR team in Dagenham, we are role models, but really we don’t think about that most of the time.”

Ford at Dagenham has had a patchy history concerning equality. In 1968, a group of female sewing machinists went on strike against a sex-biased grading structure. The 1970 Equal Pay Act followed shortly after.

In the late 1960s, investigations into race discrimination complaints were a regular part of the Ford HR territory, though the company was among the first with ethnic monitoring.

Matters came to a head in the 1990s, when Sukhjit Parmar, a Dagenham engine plant worker, won a claim of racial discrimination and victimisation, and an advertisement showing Ford workers with faces changed to disguise ethnic origins provoked unfavourable publicity. Global president Jacques Nasser flew in from Detroit to take personal control of the growing crisis.

The result was a comprehensive agreement with unions to stamp out discrimination and harassment. Among other things, it provided for joint equal opportunities committees in every Ford plant and business throughout the UK, backed up by anti-racist policies for promotion, recruitment and corporate image-making. At the time, union leader Bill Morris hailed it as “the fresh start that Dagenham needs”.

However, Ball has a different take. “Without trying to be defensive or anything, diversity has been part of our approach for a long time at Ford,” she said. “We were conducting ethnic monitoring back in 1967 and had equal opportunities policies in the 1980s. These incidents were flagged up and prompted the company to move forward. It’s part of our history.”

Inclusive approach

In 2000, Ford embarked upon an approach to diversity and inclusion, which Ball claims puts Ford at the leading edge of HR practice.

The foundation was an audit of policies and practices, conducted with the collaboration of the Commission for Racial Equality and known as the Diversity and Equality Assessment Review (Dear). “Dear has absolutely become part of our business, and that is not a cliche,” Ball said.

One way or another, it seems, Ford has arrived pretty much where it ought to be. The joint equality committees and national equality committee have a life of their own.

“There are too many of them to be controlled by HR,” said Ball. “The Dear approach and a system of annual audits by the national equalities committee have put a rigour into equality and inclusion.”

But where pressing issues of output, quality, change and skill levels are on every manager’s agenda, how does the company make space for diversity?

“As plant managers, we have a set of objectives known as SQDCME,” said Ball. “It stands for safety, quality, delivery, costs, morale and environment.

“That’s six priorities in all plants, not just in the UK but throughout the world, and they are followed through right down to work group level. It’s a wonderfully effective process and you have a scorecard, with the whole thing cascading down from senior management level. Within the ‘morale’ heading there is ‘diversity’ without question.”

Dear identified recruitment selection, development, communication, corporate citizenship, policy and planning and auditing for equality as the priorities for action. Each of these is assessed in every plant and sub-unit of the company. In manufacturing plants, the objectives are incorporated into the SQDCME system. Each heading has five or six criteria that are examined and measured against a descriptive, evaluative framework. Managers collect evidence folders during the year to demonstrate how they are meeting their specific targets, and the metrics of equality auditing are built onto that.

Going green

Managers are assessed by the audit and metrics, which give rise to a traffic light red, yellow or green indicator of how things stand on each of the six headings in each small part of the organisation. Getting your colours to green is important.

“After each annual audit, you end up with your six areas and have quite a detailed breakdown of what you will have to do to turn that level to a green,” said Ball. “So you then produce your action plan, based on the audit and your previous audit’s recommendations for improvements.”

Diversity, it seems, is being tackled with the logistics of line control, which Ford used to revolutionise commercial motor production in the 20th century. Henry would be proud.

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