Diversity and the HR profession: head to head

Equalities tsar Trevor Phillips’ comments that diversity should be taken away from the HR function has prompted huge debate inside and outside the profession. Two experts argue their case.

FOR: Diversity should stay within HR
Dianah Worman, Diversity adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)

The strong business case for diversity that people management professionals have been making for years is intimately linked with a wide range of other good people management and development practices, which together make a real difference to productivity and organisational performance. Diversity goes hand in hand with effective recruitment, talent management, motivation and development of people. Government challenges, such as increasing the number of people in work and driving up the UK skills base, require diversity to be embedded within the other HR practices that are needed to meet these agendas.

No-one would argue with Trevor Phillips’ assertion that the successful management of diversity requires the active engagement of line managers. But it is HR professionals who are best placed to drive the diversity agenda, influencing line managers and other employees to ensure diversity becomes embedded within all HR policies and procedures.

Gaining credibility

It is counter-productive to segregate diversity as a separate discipline, with standalone standards and qualifications. The credibility and effectiveness of diversity professionals is enhanced if their work contributes to a comprehensive people management strategy. And, indeed, CIPD research shows the vast majority of people with responsibility for diversity in their organisations hold this as part of a wider HR role.

Those calling for a separate body for diversity should also consider the business they are asking to be created. The establishment and effective operation of a chartered membership organisation requires significant resources. Any such body would need to establish, maintain and quality-assure the delivery of qualifications against rigorous standards. It would also need to provide substantial membership benefits and information resources, accessible to all in a 21st-century, web-savvy world. It is difficult to see how a new body could secure the financial resources to achieve all this, and an under-resourced fledgling body would risk undermining the case for diversity.

CIPD commitment

The CIPD remains committed to producing leading-edge research and guidance on diversity. We are already the most effective and relevant professional body for anyone responsible for delivering a more diverse workforce, and putting diversity into a narrow functional box risks undermining its impact. Those of us who have championed the cause of diversity should be wary of signing up to a superficially attractive, but ultimately half-baked initiative designed to appeal only to the most specialist among us. Rather, we should focus on making our case unarguable, and weaving it into the very fabric of the organisations we work for.


AGAINST: Diversity is ‘ghettoised’ in HR
James Traeger, senior consultant, Roffey Park Institute

I strongly support Trevor Phillips’ assertion that to be effective, diversity should “no longer be the sole province of HR” (Personnel Today, 21 August).

For a long time at Roffey Park, we have been building the approach to diversity into our organisational development and strategy programmes, seeing it as more than just another policy adjunct to HR.

In our experience, the most successful businesses we work with consider diversity and inclusion in terms of the ‘how’, not just the ‘who’. It is frustrating sometimes to see this issue being kept in the province of a ‘numbers game’, when actually it should be at the heart of how we think about and plan our businesses.

Missing the point

Our own research at Roffey Park shows that those organisations failing to address issues of diversity and equality are unlikely to find and employ the best talent, and risk throwing away their competitive advantage in a quickly changing global marketplace.

But all too often, leaders may miss the point here. It’s as if the chief executive hears about this risk and says: “Take a letter, Miss Jones. Tell HR we need to be thinking differently.” Meanwhile, it’s not his problem. Taking this gender point forward, many studies have shown that for women, making the organisation an interesting and welcoming place for them to work is as important, if not more important, than making sure they are recruited in the first place. Otherwise, as Suzanne Franks says in her book Having None of It: Women, Men and the Future of Work, they have a choice of continuing to feel like a stranger in a strange land, or leaving, or ‘going native’.

Boxed in

Of course, the HR dimension of diversity is important, but it can lead to a tendency to ghettoise it as an issue. The fact that we ‘take’ diversity and ‘put it with HR’ exhibits the very objectifying, overly rational (and dare I say white, western, male) viewpoint, which hankers after such boxed-in certainties, and is precisely why so many organisations these days struggle with the complexities and ambiguities we all face.

Forward-looking businesses know this, and are building diversity into their very fabric. We are currently doing some research with a leading global professional services company, looking at how its clients factor diversity into their buying decisions.

There is an aboriginal saying: “Knowledge is only a rumour until it gets in your muscles.” In short, until diversity is in the muscle of what we do as organisations, it will continue to be just a rumour.

This response was co-written with Alok Singh from Roffey Park

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