Ethnic diversity in HR is still sorely lacking

Atul Shah (pictured below), founder of Diverse Ethics, looks at the importance of diversity in the HR sector.

At a recent seminar, a senior adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) publicly said that, as an organisation, it is ‘colour blind’ – intended to mean that it is not racist. But if people themselves are not colour blind, how can an organisation be so?

In this article, I want to address the sensitive, but critical, issue of racial diversity in the HR sector, and explore why it is – in spite of the rhetoric – there is a dearth of ethnic minority members and little action.

Given that globalisation affects every aspect of personal and organisational life today, it is one of the UK’s greatest assets to have such a hugely diverse population. Sadly, this diversity is not well integrated in the workplace, and simply absent from some organisations. There is also strong evidence of glass ceilings – where people can look up and see the senior management, but have no chance of getting there because of their colour or ethnicity.

The structures and ways of working in some organisations are designed in such a way that many ethnic people feel excluded from promotion – by and large, the power culture is singular rather than plural. There is a feeling that ethnic people are there to be used, but not to share power with. It is colonialism in the workplace. The HR profession should be very concerned about this and take a lead in changing the face of the workplace. And the best way to start is to improve the ethnic diversity of its own membership, so that cultural intelligence and sensitivity is inside the profession, not outside and remote from it.

Diversity in HR

According to the last Census in 2001, there are a total of 313,650 HR and training professionals in the UK. Of these, 94.1% stated their ethnic origin as white.

The CIPD asks members on a voluntary basis, when they first join, to disclose their ethnic origin, but admitted the data it held was “sparse and unrepresentative”.

In a statement, a spokesman said: “We do not actively seek to directly influence any aspects of the demographics of the profession. Instead, our commitment is to ensure fair access to the profession for anyone, regardless of their individual background.

“We have been working with the government’s Fair Access to the Professions panel, and are also active members of the Professional Associations Research Network’s ‘Equally Professional’ group, where we exchange ideas and best practice on diversity. Our involvement in both these initiatives gives us confidence that we are demonstrating best practice in ensuring equal access to the HR profession.”

While the CIPD actively promotes the business case for diversity, does it actually practice it in terms of its own membership or workforce? Why is it then that it has no ethnic minority board members, vice-presidents or senior management? Having a large proportion of white female members is unfortunately not true diversity.

The business case for ethnic diversity in HR is simple:

  • The UK population is very diverse, so to recruit the best talent, HR has to reflect this diversity
  • Innovation and creativity are enhanced by diversity, and ethnic diversity has a special role to play in this
  • Global companies need global staff, not staff from one culture or ethnicity. HR should reflect the outer world and shirk sameness and insularity
  • Diversity in membership will improve the profile and image of the profession, showing that it is bold, progressive and forward-looking
  • Far from being hassled by equalities legislation, a diverse HR team can respond swiftly and effectively to problems with confidence, and reduce the number of race/faith tribunals and complaints. At the very least, a concerned employee will find a sympathetic ear in the HR team
  • HR diversity can help champion the boardroom diversity agenda, which itself is in need of serious transformation
  • Cultures, languages, values and faiths are very different in modern Britain. If HR does not reflect this difference, it is likely to complicate things, rather than resolve them quickly and improve organisational performance. A classic example is the religion and belief legislation – I see HR teams struggling with this.

If we look at membership of professional bodies in this country, ethnic minority members exceed the national population percentage of 8% by two, three, or even four times, as in the case of medicine. I asked the CIPD about ethnic membership data and, surprisingly, it could not provide any – but it is generally thought that the ethnic diversity of its membership is relatively low. Therefore, there is considerable scope for change and positive action; simply saying that the membership is open and accessible to all is not good enough in my opinion. My suggestions are:

  • The CIPD should commission a research study to identify what the barriers to entry are, and what are the experiences of existing ethnic members. There should also be a survey of HR directors to discover the proportion of ethnic minorities in this role; seniority is critical to sustainable change
  • The HR profession should engage with ethnic communities directly to promote itself and explain the benefits of joining and the likely career prospects
  • As ethics and values are becoming recognised as key to a good workforce, the diverse ethics of various cultures in the UK should also be understood, recognised and highlighted. At present, the signals are that faith is a complex and messy issue
  • The HR profession should invest in cultural intelligence and ensure it has the knowledge and skills to attract some of the brightest and best of the UK workforce, without fear or prejudice.
  • If these actions are undertaken, the whole profile of the HR profession will be raised, and it will show that it understands the huge potential of ethnic diversity and its creative and innovative force.

Atul Shah is founder of the internet portal and consultancy

What do you think? Is HR ethnically diverse enough and does it really matter? Post a comment below or e-mail

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