British Council: ‘There’s a whole ecosystem of diversity here’

Employees enjoy an activity day as part of the SSC's push for diversity awareness

For the 650-strong support centre for the British Council in India, it can be a challenge to find good talent. Embedding diversity into its culture has not only helped recruitment but boosted engagement all round. Head of HR Pooja Malhotra talks to Jo Faragher.

Pooja Malhotra, head of human resources at the British Council’s shared services centre in Noida, India, believes there are three drivers for increasing diversity in her organisation. “Of course, there has to be a business case, then there are legal drivers – we’re bound by both Indian and English law – and the moral case,” she explains.

“But by far the biggest factor has to be talent. The business process outsourcing industry here in India is always short of talent. And it’s not just access to skills, but also attracting people with the right attitude.”

As a wholly owned subsidiary of the British Council in the UK –whose aim is to promote the UK’s language and culture across the globe – the SSC in India is a relatively young organisation by comparison, having been set up in 2010.

It was the product of an exercise to optimise back-office functions that had previously been dotted around different countries. Over the past nine years it has gradually introduced new functions, and HR shared services is one of the most recent additions. Overall the SSC employs around 650 people, around 12 of whom look after HR.

“We recruit a huge variety of roles, from leadership to middle managers and call agents,” explains Malhotra. “Some roles are more transactionally focused, others more knowledge-based.” In terms of reaching out to candidates, the SSC uses the usual sources including social media and job boards, but it is also beginning to reach out to specialist groups that cater for under-represented groups or those with disabilities.

She adds: “Our job ads carry messages around diversity, for example there is a clear message we’re an equal opportunities employer, and we sometimes specify that we want people from specific groups.”

It’s also important that external recruitment partners understand the centre’s approach to diversity. “We’ve just reviewed our recruitment partners and taken on some new ones – we will call them in to explain how we work, the diverse backgrounds from which we like to hire,” says Malhotra.

Boosting female careers

On gender balance, the British Council SSC is way ahead of similar outsourcing organisations in India, with 43% of its employees female. One hundred percent of women return after a career break, and 32% of women who apply for an internal promotion are successful.

“We don’t believe in positive discrimination, instead we favour a mentoring and coaching culture where we encourage female professionals to apply for jobs outside of their comfort zone and take charge of their decisions,” says Malhotra. “We believe in empowering people across the diversity spectrum so they have more choices available to them.” Retention rates for women are also two percentage points higher than they are for men, she adds.

The key to sustaining results from diversity, argues Malhotra, is to make it part of the culture. “We believe diversity is not an event, it has to be integrated across all of our systems, our processes, our people,” she adds. The organisation is open about its policies and undergoes equality monitoring every two years, as well as benchmarking its demographics against external statistics such as census data or industry metrics. On top of this is training in unconscious bias and diversity awareness activities around issues such as sexual harassment.

One of the SSC’s most successful partnerships has been with the Noida Deaf Society. The charity initially came in to run some sign language workshops and talk to staff about how they could work with those with hearing difficulties. This led to the SSC introducing a series of internships for those with hearing disabilities, which recruited four new people. “Two of them have stayed with us, one of whom is now ready to apply for a permanent role. The other two gained good jobs elsewhere,” says Malhotra.

Higher purpose

Some practical adjustments had to be made, such as using flashing lights as well as an alarm for when there’s an emergency, and organising a sign language interpreter for interviews, but the impact has been positive for all employees, and it is now looking to bring other such partners on board.

We believe diversity is not an event, it has to be integrated across all of our systems, our processes, our people.” – Pooja Malhotra, head of HR, British Council Shared Services Centre

“It’s not just about different types of talent. Being more diverse has improved engagement as a whole,” she adds. “Our employees tell us that they really like the idea of working with people with disabilities – they feel that the organisation is doing something that appeals to them, that it has a higher purpose. There’s a whole ecosystem here around diversity.”

The SSC’s work around diversity has also driven some hard business improvements – Malhotra reports that there have been 10-12% productivity improvements year on year, as well as a reduction in running costs for the British Council. “There are several factors contributing to this and our diverse workforce helps generate ideas and initiatives to save costs,” she adds. As an organisation that supports the work of the British Council globally by helping things to run more efficiently and cost-effectively, it’s clear this “ecosystem” will continue to thrive.

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