Why are employers missing the mark when it comes to diversity?

Employers are failing to understand the genuine business benefits of diversity, with ‘old school’ attitudes still outweighing genuine understanding of the issues.

That’s the verdict of a study from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) which suggests many businesses are missing out on the benefits that good practice could deliver.

The report – Diversity in Business – claims that many employers focus on legal requirements without understanding the broader benefits of issues such as creativity and innovation.

Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the CIPD, says that although much progress has been made in the past decade employers still need to become far more progressive.

“By adopting a tick-box approach organisations are missing out on the real business benefits of diversity.

“I think it’s really about a lack of awareness. Companies are pre-occupied with the law and are scared of getting it wrong. There needs to be far more serious analysis because there’s a very strong business case for diversity,” she explains.

The report uses a diversity sophistication index based on the responses from the survey, which shows that only 7% of companies in the private sector achieve the top scores.

Legal pressures are cited as the main driver of diversity but less than 50% of respondents felt that diversity was the most important factor in improving innovation or creativity.

More worryingly, fewer than half of those questioned believe their top team encourage diversity, despite identifying senior management buy-in as crucial in improving equality.

A new single equality body – the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) – comes into force in October and Worman believes it will need to take a fresh approach to engage with businesses.

“The CEHR will have a great opportunity but unfortunately it may not have the budget. I think it should focus on promoting diversity in a way that isn’t as legally prescriptive as it is today,” she says.

Carolyn Lee, diversity manager at law firm Herbert Smith, thinks the business case is becoming overwhelming and that more and more employers are starting to realise it.

“Diversity is now a vital issue in so many areas including recruitment, retention and productivity.

“Top-level support is essential in demonstrating a commitment to diversity and to get buy-in across the whole organisation. However, this needs to be about culture change and life on the shopfloor must also reflect what’s happening,” she says.

The public sector fared much better in the study with 34% of organisations hitting the top scores.

Graham White, head of HR at Surrey County Council, says employers must start waking up to the requirements of the modern workforce.

“The report is a wake up call for any employer who sees equality of opportunity as optional.

“For some time the public sector has focused on the direct link between improved performance and the development of environments free of discrimination. I would not suggest we have achieved absolute success but the visibility of effort has begun the long process of building trust.

“By instilling confidence in employees and prospective employees the public sector has shown an intent to develop a vibrant working environment that doesn’t try to create a one-size-fits-all mentality,” he says.

The launch of the CEHR later this year will mark the start of a new era for diversity management in the UK but it’s clear the body will need to walk a fine line between legislation and economic persuasion.

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