Should diversity stay within the human resources department or become a function in its own right?

Diversity has become one of the most important business and employment issues of modern times, but a new debate is currently raging about how it fits into the overall corporate picture.

Traditionally, diversity professionals have sat within the HR function, advising on largely people-based issues such as recruitment, equality and discrimination. However, the inaugural chair of the forthcoming single equality body is now calling for specialists to work outside existing departments in a bid to encourage all staff to take ownership of diversity.

Trevor Phillips, who will become the first chairman of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) when it is launched in October, wants to make sure that people outside the HR arena are involved in promoting diversity.

“Most organisations are beginning to realise they need a better understanding of how to deal with difference in a whole range of departments, which is why diversity is coming out of HR,” he told Personnel Today.

Phillips is concerned that diversity could become the sole preserve of HR, when it should go beyond staffing issues and become something that every department has a stake in.

“To meet the challenges of the new domestic and global marketplace, we need to make fundamental changes in the way we think about our places of work.

“Equality deficits are not just about employment. When it comes to thinking about all aspects of an organisation’s work and functions, equality and diversity work should not be an afterthought. It should sit right within the heart of an organisation,” he added.

The Learning and Skills Council now wants a dedicated association for diversity practitioners and has published a report that calls for them to move away from HR.

Sasha Scott, a diversity expert who has worked with some of the biggest legal and financial institutions in the UK, agrees that it should become a stand-alone department, outside of HR control.

“Many law firms and city banks are doing this already and I think it does help. People often feel afraid to speak freely or start a debate about the issues when HR is too heavily involved,” she explained.

She said that diversity must be seen as a critical part of mainstream business, rather than a purely HR responsibility.

“This will help integrate new thinking across the wider business, and I actually think HR can sometimes be an inhibitor in this area.”

Robbie Gilbert, an employment relations consultant with law firm Eversheds, said the issues do need to reach beyond the HR sphere, but insisted the people function is still best placed to keep control.

“Diversity is wider than just employment, but HR should retain the leadership role. I think it’s a mistake to constrain diversity in a silo because it’s such a big subject now, but HR still has the expertise.”

However, occupational psychologist Binna Kandola, argues that HR should remain the custodian of diversity so that it remains focused on real people.

“Everything about diversity is directly linked to people, and if you create a separate department it could move away from this. It could also create tensions within firms that actually hamper equality programmes.”

He says that future advances need to be less about corporate actions and more about social issues and dealing with individuals – something that fits more closely with HR.

Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, believes that many businesses already focus too closely on the legal requirements, without understanding or delivering the broader benefits.

If diversity moves away from people managers, there is a risk that it can become a regulatory tick-box activity that fails to engage with staff.

“Diversity goes hand in hand with effective recruitment, talent management, motivation and development of people,” she said. “It is counter productive to segregate diversity as a separate discipline, with stand-alone standards and qualifications.”

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