L’Oreal urges caution in use of positive discrimination

The HR director of the first ever winner of the Diversity Best Prac-tices’ Global Leadership Award has warned that ‘quota filling’ or positive discrimination could cause a drop in standards, and should only be used if there is a real business case.

Nikki Rolfe, HR director at L’Oreal, which employs 3,400 people in the UK and Ireland, said the company would not set quotas unless it believed it really helped to change the business.

“For example, in our more junior level within marketing, we are informally aiming for a certain percentage of males,” she told Personnel Today.

“Our applications are particularly skewed towards females, and that really hits us in terms of graduates.”

Taking a fresh look at what diversity means at the cosmetics giant was a major factor in the company’s success, Rolfe said.

“We don’t think of it as just gender or ethnicity. We think of it in terms of spirit and thought,” she said. “What we are trying to do is create an environment where diverse thinking and approaches are not just accepted, but encouraged and nurtured.”

Rolfe said that from an HR perspective it made sense to have diversity because it brought a lot of enjoyment to people’s work.

“It’s sparking off people who are very different to you, who approach things in a different way,” she said. “We believe it is the root of our creativity, and our creativity is the root of our competitive advantage.”

Allowing staff to see how ideas were being generated was also a good way to get people to accept a diverse workforce, Rolfe said.

A lot of work at L’Oreal is done around the table, which means people can understand how one person’s idea can be built on and improved by people of different cultural backgrounds.

“Because of that, people have seen how a good idea has become an absolutely fabulous delivery to market,” said Rolfe.

Making diversity integral to the organisation is essential to its continuing success, according to Rolfe.

“We can’t survive as a business without being diverse in spirit and in people. We haven’t got the problems that some organisations have, where it’s an HR thing and there is some lip service being paid to it.

“[In situations like that] you have to have lots of built in checks and balances because actually no one really sees the value of it,” she said.

The system is proving a success. Last year, L’Oreal received 435,000 applications from around the world for managerial vacancies.

It was presented with the award at the 2004 Diversity and Women Leadership Summit & Gala in Washington, US, in recognition of a corporate culture that embraces and drives diversity throughout the company.


Nikki Rolfe’s CV



  • September 2001 to present day: L’Oreal, HR director
  • 1999-2001: Whitbread, HR director
  • 1985-1999: Sainsbury’s, several senior HR roles
  • 1985: Graduated from Bristol University in biochemistry



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