How can HR re-energise the diversity agenda?

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There’s plenty of evidence that having a diverse and inclusive workforce is good for business, but why are many organisations barely going beyond compliance with equality legislation? Ashleigh Webber meets a group of senior HR professionals who explore how the profession can make a difference.

It seems the argument around how to achieve true diversity at all levels – including gender, race, religion, sexual orientation among other characteristics – has been going round in circles for some time, with signs of progress remaining at a premium.

A recent round table discussion among senior HR professionals, hosted by recruitment specialists Network HR, sought to move the argument on and attempt to find out how employers’ good intentions could be transformed into more effective action.

Chris Rowlands, director at Network HR, a part of the Executive Network Group, kicks off the discussion with a harsh truth: employers are still playing “catch up” by focusing on meeting legal requirements like gender pay gap reporting and preparing for the possibility of ethnicity pay gap reporting – which the government has indicated could become mandatory – rather than developing proactive diversity initiatives.

He says: “A lot of HR directors I speak to feel they’re being very reactive … trying to appease people or trying to deal with the latest lobbying group or the latest legislation changes.

“They’re playing catch up with these [developments] rather than embracing the power of diversity and inclusivity.

“There are standards that exist [such as the UK National Equality Standard] but do they hold genuine value for your organisations? Do they perpetuate diversity and inclusion within your organisations or are they potential barriers?”

Syreeta Brown, managing director, global head of talent acquisition strategy and programs at Citi, says there is a significant difference between an organisation actually making change happen and one that is simply box-ticking.

“You can tell the authentic agendas from the ones that are trying to create an illusion that they’re doing the right thing and they’re changing. You can discover that quite easily when you talk to the people within the organisation.”

She challenges the idea that middle managers are often a barrier to progress, noting that there are lots of other cultural layers organisations need to “unpick”. She asks whether middle managers were really able make a difference if senior leaders have not made them accountable for their actions, for example.

“You can create strategy, but if you haven’t got the leaders at every level for accountability and consequence management then nothing will change,” she adds.

Ask about barriers

Joanna Abeyie, CEO of D&I consultancy Blue Moon and non-executive director at Investors in People, says one of the simplest things an organisation can do to discover the barriers to employees’ career goals is to ask them.

“[Investors in People] did a survey recently and it found 44% of people left their job because they didn’t feel they could progress within their organisation, there weren’t career opportunities for them and they didn’t feel like they could be themselves,” says Abeyie.

“We always suggest focus groups. It’s really simple and there’s no great science to it. Most businesses have employee resource groups – some volunteer to share their experiences – and get someone from the senior leadership team to sit in the back of those rooms and listen to how people feel. It can tell you a lot about the culture.

You can tell the authentic agendas from the ones that are trying to create an illusion that they’re doing the right thing and they’re changing. You can discover that quite easily when you talk to the people within the organisation” – Syreeta Brown, Citi

“If you want to know who you’re excluding, you have to ask; and if you don’t know who to ask, ring a charity or organisation whose aim is to support individuals who require specific or alternative support. They will quite happily tell you why the people they support are not getting into the industries that they want to work in and what are the barriers to entry, and the challenges in retaining their talent in your organisation.”

The recruitment process is sometimes a major setback for some groups. While technology has made some areas of recruitment easier, many employers do not realise it can actually be excluding certain people, says Abeyie. “Blind” CVs are useless if the same biases are encountered at the interview stage, for example.

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“So many companies say that all of their job vacancies are available on their website and you must apply through there. But if I’m disabled and I can’t use a mouse, how am I going to navigate your website? There’s equality, and then there’s equity – what have you given that individual that allows them to be successful at competing?”

With many different facets of diversity, the challenges differ depending on the industry. Trasie Woolley, HR director at construction equipment supplier Speedy Hire, notes that age is often an issue in the engineering industry when choosing who to work on a tender for a big project. Often clients need staff with 20 years’ experience, which defines who the company puts forward.

“I’ve worked a lot in engineering and utilities businesses where, when tendering for a large job, you automatically know the people who are going to work on that tender. Over the years they’ve become great engineers or the architects, which is a great thing, but actually you’re judging people on their longevity – it’s really hard for the young people coming in who are brilliant but they have to work for 20 years before they’re recognised enough to be on particular tenders.”

Inclusivity incentives

However, David Franks, HR director, organisational development and group functions at Amey, says that public procurement processes often involve satisfying the client that inclusion is imperative to the organisation – creating a further incentive for the firm to become truly inclusive.

“If we don’t look and sound and feel like the communities we serve then that’s not helping us create services that are best serving those communities. It’s not just the right thing to do for employees, it’s also commercially sound,” he says.

While the organisations represented in the room all offered flexible working, many note the challenges it presented: not all of their staff had roles that could be easily done from home or outside of usual office hours, and there were still cultural barriers to its widespread adoption in some workplaces.

Dimitris Tsouroplis, executive director of HR at Lomar Shipping, says that the perception that people working 8am to 3pm were not working as hard as someone working 9am to 5pm might be a barrier to them progressing in their careers. This would only change if people in more senior roles were seen to be working flexibly.

However, David Franks says that 75% of Amey’s workforce are in frontline roles, such as cleaning buildings and repairing roads, so were not able to do their jobs from home like the staff in its office environments.

So many companies say that all of their job vacancies are available on their website and you must apply through there. But if I’m disabled and I can’t use a mouse, how am I going to navigate your website?” – Joanna Abeyie, Blue Moon and Investors in People

“You’ve got to make the policies work for the people who are doing the fundamental part of your work,” he explains. “It’s great in a white collar office environment to be able to come in at nine and go for a run at lunchtime, but when staff are working on a shift in operational roles, how do you make your inclusion policies work?”

Some organisations might inadvertently exclude certain groups with their policies around flexible working and family life, suggested a senior HR professional in the banking sector.

“If you don’t have children, you feel like you’re one of the ones picking up the pieces for the people who have to look after their kids. You feel like you’re the one who can’t take time off at Christmas because you don’t have children. So you end up being penalised because you don’t fit into those categories that people think are more important than if you were someone who doesn’t have children,” an HR professional who wishes to remain anonymous says.

Clearly there is no easy way to address the barriers to progression and job satisfaction that many groups of employees face, but these HR professionals agree that action to improve diversity is critical to securing the most talented people.

Abeyie advises HR teams to do more to challenge ingrained cultures that were hampering equality and continue highlight the business case for diversity at all levels.

“I think we need to think a bit more creatively about what are the challenges we have,” she says. “I don’t think it’s the business case, I don’t think it’s the lack of data, I think it’s changing the hearts and minds of those who are in positions of power – and not just doing it for financial gain.”

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