Successful diversity focuses on innovation, not compliance

With the UK population becoming increasingly diverse, attention has intensified on how to reflect this in the make-up of the corporate workforce. Leigh Lafever-Ayer, HR director for UK & Ireland at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, says that progress seems glacially slow.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 36% of people in full-time employment are women, even though they make up 51% of the population, according to the 2011 census. Britain’s ethnic minority population has also increased by nearly 40% between 2001 and 2009, but the corporate world has failed to reflect these changes in its workforce, with many industries struggling both to attract and retain applicants from diverse backgrounds.

Governments in the European Union – led by the UK – have combined to oppose the 40% quota of women on boards proposed by the European Commission.

Leigh Lafever-Ayer
Leigh Lafever-Ayer,
HR director for UK and Ireland at Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

The bottom-line benefits of recruiting a diverse workforce have been proven in tangible terms. However, government tactics such as quotas that forcibly encourage businesses to bring this about are viewed much less favourably.

Business or HR isssue?

At Enterprise, we don’t like quotas either; we believe that diversity is a business issue, not a human resources issue. Our business model means that we predominantly promote from within, which forces us to place a high emphasis on diversity. If we want to have senior people from a broad range of backgrounds, we need to attract them as graduates and retain them for the long term. This has led us to focus our diversity efforts on innovation rather than compliance.

Diversity policies are not a magic wand and translating them into action is not a one-step process. For a number of years now we have had a three-tiered diversity training strategy for our management team, which has taken our business out of its comfort zone. But we have needed to come up with new ways to retain the right cultural mix, and even a new way of defining what success looks like beyond the bottom line.

In fact, we have found that diversity has led to incremental business success and that it underpins good customer service, which in turn has a direct impact on our sales.

In recruiting, we focus on the cultural makeup of the local communities around the 360 branches we have across the UK. This gives us a good baseline to measure what the ethnicity makeup of the workforce in our different branches should look like.

We then recruit from a wide range of universities – almost every UK university, in fact. Many other businesses take the cream from the top academic universities, but we find that strong academic ability alone doesn’t always make for a successful business person.

Diversity framework

The creation of a “diversity scorecard” has helped us to support our teams in building a diverse workforce throughout our business and keeps the issue at the forefront at all times. The 25-page guide gives our directors and managers a consistent framework to evaluate and measure the success of their local diversity programmes, in categories such as recruiting talent and performance accountability.

As a result, our senior managers have the tools to identify opportunities, share best practice, self-assess efforts with their management teams and create meaningful action planning.

By measuring diversity, we have also been able to recognise how employee efforts to become inclusive have impacted on staffing levels, morale, profitability, employee retention and new business. These are core to our ongoing growth.

Successful initiatives

Many companies are grappling with how to help more women reach senior roles, especially since the Davies Report shone a spotlight on the shortage of women in senior positions. To try to tackle this problem, we have introduced a formal female-mentoring programme.

We partner female employees with a senior director that they don’t normally work with, and, through regular discussions, they focus on how the employee needs to prepare in order to progress to the next level, what adjustments may need to be made, how to find solutions to work/life balance challenges and how to manage logistical issues that can often create false barriers to progression.

We have already seen a number of results from these initiatives including:

  • 27% of year-to-date recruits are black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME);
  • 40% of year-to-date recruits are female; and
  • 15% of UK managers are BAME.

In addition, embedding diversity in our business has extended beyond our own talent programmes, employee development and recruitment practices. We also have to drive diversity through our supply chains, offering opportunities to small and medium-sized ethnic minority or female owned businesses that may otherwise not have the opportunity to secure blue-chip business.

The danger of compliance without innovation is that it becomes a box-ticking exercise and businesses lose sight of the real objectives of diversity. If we are simply meeting quotas and not offering an attractive work environment with prospects and opportunities, then we are not going to be attracting the right kind of people to operate a successful business.

Going further than ticking boxes

It is easy to tick the box when it comes to reaching requirements on diversity standards, but it doesn’t mean you have the right diversity fit for your business or your customers.

Instead, having a diverse workforce should mean that you have access to a wider talent pool, which translates to a wider group of thoughts and ideas and therefore a more successful business.

The challenge is that innovation and fresh thinking are very easily quashed when businesses have new rules they need to abide to – and which they need to prove they have respected. If we move into a world where diversity becomes just an issue of quotas, and not of business strategy, talent and success, is there a risk that businesses will default to ticking boxes? Do we end up becoming diversity bean-counters, obsessed with percentages and head counts rather than focusing on how diversity makes a difference to our business?

That is why a focus on compliance is not enough. Businesses need to get creative if they are to become inclusive cultures that encourage diversity. They need to overcome the natural hurdles inherent in their industry sector and company networks. They also need to be innovative about how to create a company structure and communications that encourages diversity. Finally, they need to remember that sometimes the biggest hurdles are buried deep in the minds of employees and applicants.

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