Having a diversity policy is just the first step in a long-term process that
will bring benefits to any organisation. Jane Lewis finds out how the Royal
Mail Group and Nike EMEA are going about making their workplaces more equal
When Henry Ford launched the first formal diversity programme in 1913 and
began to hire black, immigrant and disabled staff, he was branded a utopian
crank with socialist tendencies that bordered on the anarchic.
Times have certainly changed. The concept of diversity in the workplace –
incorporating different personalities, sexualities, religions and educational
backgrounds, as well as race, age, ability and gender – is now so far advanced
that in most quarters, it is regarded as a prerequisite for success.
But the question clearly bedevilling HR professionals trying to get a grip
on this most slippery of policies, is where to begin. This may explain why so
few organisations in the UK have taken active steps to tackle it – despite
paying lip service to the ideal.
The first step for many is to focus minds by appointing a director of
diversity. That was certainly the step taken by the Royal Mail Group when it
hired Satya Kartara for the job last year.
Diversity appointments are usually driven by two hard-nosed considerations:
maximising the business opportunity and managing risk – both in terms of
complying with legislation and safeguarding reputation. For the beleaguered
Royal Mail – still losing £1m a day and reeling from an aggressive macho
culture that culminated in the tragic suicide of an employee – the situation
was clearly pressing.
To make matters worse, last December the Royal Mail’s much-vaunted new
broom, chairman Allan Leighton, was forced to counter accusations from former
managing director of mail markets Gillian Wilmot that he had turned the group
into a ‘boys’ club’.
"I’m not blaming anyone," says Wilmot, who lost out on promotion
in a boardroom shake-up, "but it would have been nice to have a crack at
the job, and there should have been open competition." Leighton, however,
dismisses her allegations as "utter rubbish".
Kartara clearly has her work cut out. Fortunately, she comes with an
impeccable pedigree. Having cut her teeth at Ford, she then became director of
change at BHS – the high street retailer transformed by owner Philip Green, in
under 20 months, from an ailing £200m company to one now valued at more than
£1bn. While her remit at the Royal Mail is clearly very different, Kartara says
she will be importing many of the practices and processes that were employed at
BHS to such good effect.
Underpinning everything is a four-point renewal strategy. "And right at
the top of that is our determination to make the Royal Mail a great place to
work," says Kartara. Once you get the people issues right, she argues,
bottom line considerations – such as creating efficiencies, and improving
cashflow and profitability – will follow automatically.
In many ways, the Royal Mail’s situation is typical of a number of
organisations across the public and private sectors – albeit on a larger scale.
Currently employing some 220,000 staff, of which some 10 per cent are classed
as ethnic minorities, Kartara says: "We are fairly diverse already. But
that diversity is concentrated in certain areas, such as London and parts of
the North. I would like it to be reflected at all levels across the
organisation. The Royal Mail is one of the last great British institutions; we
want the best people – and they come from all walks of life."
Like every diversity expert, she too deplores the notion of quotas, arguing
that they are not only illegal, but also counter-productive.
As Jon Whiteley, head of diversity at occupational psychologists Pearn
Kandola, points out: "The very idea of quotas is negative and it hacks
people off. You have to make it clear that what you are after is an
organisation that is a meritocracy: that the best people for the job will be
selected for a position.
"Achieving diversity clearly involves targets, but the important thing
is the activity underneath that – not the target itself."
Many organisations, he adds, find it politic to prevent even these
"aspirational targets" from becoming common knowledge.
The real challenge for Kartara, then, is to identify the kind of cultural
barriers that might be preventing wider groups from taking up jobs with the
Royal Mail – and to remove any impediments deterring those already employed
from seeking and achieving promotion.
The first step in the strategy is to audit how the organisation presently
views itself. "A model we used at BHS – a rolling monthly attitude survey
– was a great way to take a temperature check on how people were feeling, and
it turned out to be one of the most important documents in the
Given the Royal Mail’s particular history, she has put forward a number of
questions relating to harassment and bullying. Indeed, the ‘Dignity at Work’
initiative she has pioneered gets straight down to brass tacks.
"We’ve recognised that we have a culture of bullying in the
organisation – though I would make it clear this is only by a minority – and
this makes clear that we will not tolerate it. We want people to come to work
and feel they’re being respected and valued."
To give the initiative teeth, she has introduced an independent helpline,
whose advisers have been trained not just to listen, but to help people
initiate formal complaints where necessary.
These are still early days for the Royal Mail’s Renewal Strategy. But in the
battle to establish greater diversity, one thing Kartara has on her side is the
senior managers’ committed ownership of the policy, from the chairman down. She
plans to build on this by recruiting senior diversity champions at different
levels in the business, such as board members, managing directors and area managers
– to "promote, support and drive the strategy".
"You don’t achieve these things overnight," Kartara says.
"This is a long-term challenge, but I wouldn’t have taken the job if I
didn’t think it was possible. Diversity cannot just be a sideline; it must be
at the heart of everything we do."
For all the challenges Kartara faces at the Royal Mail, she did at least
have one thing on her side – introducing the diversity policy was as much an
exercise in crisis management as anything else. But for many companies
currently chugging along happily enough, the issue of diversity presents
different problems. One of the main problems, says Susy Bobenreith, director of
learning and development at Nike EMEA, is simply defining what is actually
meant by diversity, let alone the strategies needed to achieve it –
particularly when you run an organisation that spans the continents of Europe
"One thing that was happening was that we were too much in
debate-mode," she says. "We couldn’t come to a place where we could
get any action – it was all too pie in the sky."
In the end the frustration boiled over. "We thought, ‘we’re Nike, we
need to just do it’. So we decided to focus on one thing to act as a catalyst.
The issue we could all agree not to argue about was gender."
Although the gender divide at Nike EMEA is currently 50:50, the company
suffers from the familiar problem that that ratio declines quite dramatically
the further up the company ranks you go.
"We took an audit of the people coming up through the organisation and
measured men and women per function, per business group and per country,"
The conclusion she came to, was: "Even if we promoted women at the same
rate as men, we didn’t have a [middle management] bench to draw on."
In common with the Royal Mail, Bobenreith decided to tackle the problem
obliquely, focusing on creating a culture that would attract and encourage more
women, rather than going hell for leather for targets. This wasn’t just because
she feared a backlash from men; she was also getting pleas from women who did
not want their professional standing damaged by being tarred with the positive
discrimination brush. Clearly, it was a delicate balance to get right.
Bobenreith began with measures to even out the playing field, such as
introducing more flexible working times and ensuring that women who left to
have children knew they would be welcomed on their return.
Another key focus was transparency in recruitment and promotion. "We
wanted to get away from the belief that you get jobs because you know the
people who hang around the water cooler." This meant making management
decisions transparent and creating a senior management profile, "so that
everyone could see what sort of skills and attributes were necessary".
She also made a point of training managers "to use specific techniques
to check their own biases". The greatest enemy of diversity, she says, is
"It comes naturally to hire people you like – to fall in love with one
particular characteristic. We needed to teach managers to suspend first
impressions – or at the very least, to be aware that we all have biases, and to
be able to catch yourself when you’re doing it."
She also made it clear to recruitment companies that Nike wanted to select
from a wider, more balanced pool.
A year into the initiative, the results are already speaking for themselves.
Out of 50 middle management positions up for grabs, 26 women were hired.
The gender programme, Bobenreith says, is "just one spoke in the
wheel" of making Nike a more diverse company, but its success will help to
spearhead and encourage a wider strategy.
"Essentially, we want to figure out a [strategic] roof for the company
that will sit over individual countries" – allowing them to tailor the
detail to suit their own particular situations.
However, Nike has come a long way from the ‘jock guy’ culture that has
tended to dominate at the company since 1971, when it was founded in Beaverton,
Oregon, US. Back then, "people weren’t hired for skill sets, but for how
fast they could run". Even as little as five years ago, all general
management positions in Europe were dominated by American men. "Now at
least we have Europeans running the show," she says.
The EMEA diversity programme tunes in with "a subconscious move to
becoming more globally diverse as an organisation" she says. "We’re
still grappling with this – we haven’t cracked the nut yet."
But now, there is at least the satisfaction of having made a successful
Katara, Bobenreith and Whiteley will all be speaking at the Pearn Kandola
New Directions in Diversity conference in Newbury on 11 March, being held in
association with Personnel Today. For more details, visit www.pearnkandola.com