Talent management: Open up and prosper with diversity

In the race to attract and retain top talent, employers must ensure they’re inclusive, reports Margaret Kubicek.

For too many organisations, the issues of diversity and talent management are mutually exclusive, according to diversity consultant Anthony Wilkes.

“They will say, ‘we’re doing all we can’, but while 10% of staff might be from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups, their fast-track talent identification programme will have fewer than 2% BME employees,” says Wilkes.

Wilkes, managing director of Crystal Education & Training Consultants, says one of the reasons diversity programmes are not delivering is because they have been designed by those in the majority, rather than minorities.

“You have to look at the process and then the people delivering the process and making the decisions about the process,” he says. “Make sure they actually understand how subjective their decisions often are.”

Employers are plunging millions of pounds into talent management initiatives such as leadership academies, but behind all the fanfare, just how inclusive are they?

In practice

Of those organisations serious about talent management, virtually all state diversity as an aim of their programmes, according to diversity specialist Binna Kandola, senior partner at occupational psychology firm Pearn Kandola. But while these schemes look great on paper, it is in the practice where it starts to fall down.

Specifically, says Kandola, employers too often fail to look at the details: how individuals are recruited into the organisation and then selected for progression, how objective and fair are the criteria for entry onto talent management programmes, and how are particular groups monitored as they progress – or not – up the organisational ladder and nurtured along the way.

To get over this, organisations need to do a diversity and equality health check on all talent management activities, suggests Wilkes. This should penetrate right down to the detail of why certain qualifications or years of experience are specified for certain posts, on the basis that to do so could be inadvertently discriminatory to certain groups (on age, for example).

Nigel Paine, head of training development strategy for the BBC, believes getting diversity right starts at recruitment. “It requires going beyond the conventional places and trying to open up new pipelines: reaching out, looking at advertising in different publications and at different kinds of events, attending fairs and places where we can get our message over about attracting ethnic minorities.”

The basic question employers need to be asking is: ‘Where are the qualified people that don’t look at us?’, according to Simma Lieberman, a US-based diversity strategy consultant. “Employers need to do some research, and with the internet, there’s no excuse,” she says.

Diversity champions

The BBC has specific corporate initiatives in place that support the diversity agenda in relation to talent management. There are diversity champions in every division, for example. There is also a black and Asian forum for junior to middle management employees and a dedicated diversity unit. The latter sets strategic direction and identifies training needs, so has real power in the organisation.

The key is to make diversity initiatives an integral part of talent management, rather than an add-on that will be seen by many employees as a box-ticking exercise.

The BBC’s approach to diversity is “essentially self-regulating”, says Paine, with the aim to raise awareness among managers and achieve buy-in for it that way.

Similarly, financial services firm ING Wholesale Banking does not rely on “overt diversity criteria” to identify talent. “Our approach has been to make managers aware of their diversity obligations up front so that their HR decisions, of which talent management is one, are inclusive,” says HR leadership and development manager Penny Thompson.

Furthermore, formal audits and outright positive discrimination could land employers in hot water. Positive discrimination is unlawful, although employers can apply for an exemption to recruit from a specific group of people on the grounds of a specific business need.

“We’ve never taken the radical step of ensuring diverse shortlists,” says Paine. However, once particular groups are in the workforce, the BBC aims to ensure there is a balance of representation on its programmes. “If you look at who is on the screen, you will see there has been a conscious effort that the faces are not just white.”

Setting targets

In some sectors or organisations, targeted shortlists do work. Setting targets for minority representation on shortlists, as long as those taken forward for interview have met the personnel specification, can be an effective means of diversifying your workforce, says Wilkes.

“Targets are very powerful, but they are also highly contentious and, unless used sensitively, they will backfire,” says Wilkes. “It must be expert-driven and thought through holistically.”

The drawbacks of targeting certain groups are too great, says Kandola. “It can have a negative impact on those targeted. They suffer loss of confidence and self-esteem because they are seen as tokens,” he says.

It is better to look at what the process is for new recruits entering the talent pipeline. “How fair is it? What criteria are being used? Are they objective?” says Kandola. For example, if an organisation runs a leadership scheme, it is crucial to guard against criteria that is – however unintentionally – gender, race or age-specific.

So which employers are getting it right? Some argue that the public sector has made greater strides on diversity – thanks to the political and legislative accountability affecting its employers – while lagging behind their private sector counterparts on talent management.

“In the private sector, accountability is much narrower, but if the public sector fails, then the legislative framework kicks in and funding could be removed,” says Wilkes.

Regardless of where they work, line managers play a pivotal role in nurturing talent, and it is critical they take an inclusive approach in keeping with the organisation’s wider aims around diversity. The job for HR is to assess managers’ own learning needs and provide them with appropriate diversity training and development.

Opening up your talent pipeline to new horizons can provide real payback, but only if managers across the organisation have the right level of support. m

A diversity task list

  • Embed diversity in the organisation’s strategic talent management objectives.

  • Do a diversity health check on all talent management activities and programmes.

  • Ensure criteria to identify talent is fair and objective, without gender, age, religion or race bias.

  • Pursue different pipelines and pathways when recruiting.

  • Provide development to make line managers aware of their own biases and stereotypes, and ensure they are not reflected in talent identification and recruitment.

  • Monitor staff, and obtain data on how particular groups are feeling to ensure they have equal access to career opportunities.

  • Track particular ethnic and minority groups to gauge whether they are being nurtured and developed in their roles.

  • Foster informal networks for particular groups.

Opinion… Building the business case for diversity

The business case for diversity is clear. If we look at the markets in which we operate – not just in the UK but globally – our customers and suppliers are more diverse than ever before.

Some organisations treat diversity purely as a moral obligation or because they are complying with some sort of discrimination law. That is just ticking boxes, in my view. We need to recognise what a diverse workforce can bring to the party, and only then do we have a real business case.

Organisations need to stop focusing purely on headcount, and look at their ‘brain count’ – for example, if 50% of the world’s brains are female, then 50% of your talent needs to be female.

The traditional talent pool is shrinking. If HR wants to make a real impact on business, it must take the lead on seeking out talent where it exists. We need to look more widely beyond the traditional pools and recruit from groups that we haven’t tended to employ before, particularly at senior level.

It has never been so important to integrate diversity into your talent programme. UK businesses are now competing against global players such as India and China. If we are to exploit the opportunities the new market dynamics provide, we need to be able to understand our potential customers and suppliers in these countries, but the starting point is here in the UK right now.

The best leaders recognise this. When I worked as director of diversity and inclusion for Royal Mail, our chairman said he wanted more women and more minority groups at senior levels – not because of who they were but because of the benefits the diversity of talent could bring to that business.

It is not just about how you recruit, either. It is also about how you do business – your image, how you communicate with your customers and your suppliers, how you value people.

Technology moves fast but is only ever temporary. What makes a company successful is the innovation and new thinking that people bring – that’s diversity.

Satya Kartara is the founder and managing director of BeInclusive, a diversity consultancy. Her previous roles include director of diversity and inclusion at Royal Mail, and head of diversity for Ford. She is also a member of the Personnel Today editorial advisory board.

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