Why diversity is a business issue, not an HR issue


You would be hard pushed to find an HR professional who doesn’t agree that diversity and inclusion in the workforce is important. It is not just an instinct that us so-called “fluffy people people” have, nor is it just about equality and fairness.

Study after study proves that teams that reflect the rich tapestry of life, and the customers they serve, perform better than homogeneous teams. Yet a number of factors have been conspiring to prevent the majority of organisations from making any real progress towards true diversity and inclusion.

First, I think the recession pushed diversity too far down the agenda – too many companies have been focused on short-term survival strategies at the expense of sustainable, long-term growth strategies. This means that, as a profession, we have been focused on hiring and firing at the expense of long-term talent management.

Now, as the economy shows signs of improvement, we need to move away from thinking about how we can help organisations survive towards how we ensure that they thrive.

Second, the issue of diversity has become oversimplified, while simultaneously being bureaucratically complicated. Legislation and quotas around certain protected characteristics have unfortunately become necessary to protect specific groups and give businesses a not-so-gentle nudge to do the right thing for themselves, for the economy and for society.

We must stop obsessing over checklists, targets and quotas, and instead get back to what HR does best: helping managers to better understand team dynamics”

It is encouraging to see that in recent weeks, various diversity initiatives are once again making the headlines. The London Stock Exchange last month appointed two female directors, meaning there are now only two FTSE 100 companies with all-male boards.

Meanwhile, the High Speed Rail Industry Leaders Group has said that the people who build the proposed HS2 railway should include the physically disabled, the “unemployable” and former prisoners.

The chief constable responsible for police recruitment in England and Wales has even warned the Prime Minister that he may need to lobby for a change in the law regarding positive discrimination if he wants to see more minority faces in policing.

While these are all laudable initiatives, diversity should be more about reflecting the communities you serve and less about specific quotas.

By breaking the workforce down into small silos and telling employers who they should and shouldn’t hire, we lose sight of the richness and variety that a truly diverse organisation brings and forget that diversity is not always tangible.

You might have an executive team made up of four women and four men, all with different religions or ethnic backgrounds, some gay, some straight; but if they all had a similar education, are all extroverts and have all always worked in the same sector, can you truly say that your executive team is diverse?

By contrast, five white females sat around a table could all come from very different backgrounds, have different perspectives and different ways of working that can help a business grow, innovate and better meet the needs of its customers.

This is why we must stop obsessing over checklists, targets and quotas, and instead get back to what HR does best: helping managers to better understand team dynamics and how to develop their teams so that every individual can shine and deliver their true potential, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Diversity and inclusion are not often discussed in terms of business issues. More frequently, they are considered HR or compliance issues, reduced to conversations about certain protected characteristics. Reflecting the communities you serve makes sense morally and ethically, but it’s also good business – diverse teams connect better with customers and help you make better decisions. This is about better work and working lives for everyone, for the long term. It is about making the right choices for individuals, businesses, the economy and society at large.

As HR professionals, we should take the lead in making that point in ever louder tones, but it is perhaps more important to demonstrate diversity and inclusion through our behaviour as a profession than to keep talking about it.

HR teams everywhere should be asking themselves if the tools they use are fit for purpose in this regard. A good place to start would be fair recruitment and selection practices, and a simple first step would be anonymous CVs during the selection process – as employers such as law firm Clifford Chance are already doing.

As the professional body for HR and people development, the CIPD has a role to play too. That’s why not only are we backing high-profile campaigns such as the Lord Mayor’s “Power of Diversity” campaign, but we are also planning a whole suite of research around best practice guidance that we will publish throughout the course of the year.

Susannah Clements

About Susannah Clements

Susannah Clements leads the executive HR search team at Ithaca Partners. She was deputy chief executive of the CIPD from 2013 to 2015, having previously held senior HR posts at Care UK, Anglian Water and Whitbread.
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