HR magazine's diversity survey: UK still has a way to go

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Over the summer months, London became the centre of the world, says David Woods.

Following the Diamond Jubilee of our elderly – but still thriving – Queen, all eyes turned to our capital city for the Olympic Games, seen as a beacon of diversity, and the biggest Paralympic Games ever staged, while our business leaders and politicians schmoozed visiting dignitaries in a bid to convince them the UK was worth investment from a global business community.

News headlines surrounding the London Olympics revealed this was the first year in the history of the modern Olympiad that every country taking part put forward both male and female competitors. And if the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London have taught us anything, it is that people of any race, colour, creed, gender, able-bodied and disabled, can achieve great things.

This was as much the summer of diversity as the summer of sport.

But is the lesson about diversity one employers in the host nation have been too slow to learn?

Just weeks before the lighting of the Olympic beacon, designed to inspire a generation, prime minister David Cameron was forced to suggest changes to the law to allow religious items to be worn in the workplace, following a long-standing legal case when an employee appealed to the European Court of Human Rights after being asked to remove a crucifix at work.

And the high-profile court case of footballer John Terry, accused of making racist slurs – of which he was acquitted – has thrown up serious questions about employment relations in sport. Writing for www.hrmagazine.co.uk, Tom Flanagan, partner and head of employment at the law firm Irwin Mitchell, said in another sector Terry could be compared to a high-value senior member of staff, where the employer would be reluctant to investigate or discipline because of the perceived cost to the business of removing that employee.

Terry must decide by 6pm today whether he will appeal against the separate Football Association decision of a four-match ban and a hefty fine for the incident.

If an employer, such as an investment bank, acted in that way, it would be likely to attract both public and legal criticism. The Terry case has led lawyers to question why football should be any different.

With the removal of the default retirement age leading to a potential increase of older people in the workplace and Lord Davies' review of women on boards calling for an increase of female leadership, the strands of diversity are never far from the front pages of the business press – or the tabloids.

In response, HR magazine launched its inaugural Diversity Survey, to investigate the views and practices of 271 UK employers on this hot topic to find out if diversity is a core part of business strategy, a nice thing to do – or political correctness gone mad…

The results were startling.

The study found 28% of respondents said diversity and equality were at the core of their business; 17% said it was 'a top priority' and 37% said it was 'high on their list' of priorities. But despite the fact that only 11% said it was not a business imperative and 8% said it was unimportant, of the total sample, just over half (57%) had a diversity strategy.

Although 20% admit to monitoring diversity regularly in lieu of a comprehensive diversity strategy and 9% plan to introduce a strategy, more than one in eight (14%) have no plans to put such a plan in place in their organisation.

Looking specifically at the strands of diversity, although 82% said diversity and equality were either core to their business, a top priority or important to them, 16% are doing nothing to address age equality in their business, 46% are not addressing sexual orientation, 37% are not addressing ethnic origin, 18% are not implementing gender equality measures, 19% do not have any disability initiatives in place and a massive 70% are not addressing diversity and inclusion dependent on nationality.

In spite of this, 64% of employers agreed the most important reason to have a diversity policy in place was to attract and retain the best talent from the largest pool and 55% believe a diverse workforce leads to an increase of new ideas and better collaboration. A third (33%) said it is fair and appropriate to give a chance of employment to everyone that applies for a role, one of their top three reasons for valuing diversity.

Commenting on the findings, Helen Wells, director of diversity campaigning group Opportunity Now, explains: "I think the survey shows that in a lot of cases, employers are saying diversity is vital, but they don't have the infrastructure to support it. So they are paying lip service. A diversity strategy needs to be around culture change. It needs a route map and a strategy."

And Steve Purdy, managing director of flexible office provider Regus, agrees. He adds: "The fact nearly 20% of employers think diversity is a nice to have, or unimportant, is surprising and depressing." But Fiona Cannon, director of diversity and equality at Lloyds Banking Group, is more optimistic about the findings. "The majority of employers thought diversity was vital or important and I find this encouraging," she explains. "More and more employers are seeing diversity making a difference to the bottom line."

But Cannon and Wells agreed that diversity of employees helps businesses support and relate to the customers they serve.

Wells believes there could be an issue here with employer brand, having seen the finding that 33% of employers struggle to create a diversity brand for staff. "Your employees are your customers," she says. "And employers may struggle to create an employer brand. If they can't attract diverse staff, they can't attract diverse customers. There's a fine line here."

Cannon elaborates: "Employers think of diversity about being groups of staff, recruitment, promotion and so on. The issue with customers is less understood. It is important to present diversity externally as well as internally. Customers need to be brought into diversity conversations and we need to move quickly here, considering demographics and the economy. Employees are only one part of diversity."

Purdy agrees, adding: "Diversity will lead to a more rounded view of the world from staff and help the company win custom. One begets the other."

Looking at the specific strategies employers have put in place to address diversity, the survey found that age, gender and disability are the strands employers appear to be most on top of. The survey found 42% of employers measure and monitor race in the workplace, more than a quarter (27%) offer development opportunities for employees over the age of 65, 35% have pay transparency for males and females, 14% have mentoring schemes for women and 56% have facilities in place to support disabled employees to work on site.

At board level, there is still work to be done, though, with only 8% having lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) board representation, 13% having black or minority ethnic people on the boards, 10% having disabled people on the board and 9% setting board level quotas for women.

In the area of LGBT representation, Cannon thinks there is work to be done. She explains: "I find surprising the finding that 46% of respondents don't have initiatives in place to support LGBT staff. I think this strand has been less well understood than others, because it is not immediately visible and this has led to a reticence among employers. Our staff tell us they want the company to be more involved, but employers are concerned about getting LGBT equality right. The high findings still surprised me, though."

Commentators agree there is more work to be done on the road to a diverse and inclusive economy. Employers said their biggest challenges to a diverse workplace were unconscious bias from line managers (69%), complex legislation on discrimination (42%) and the difficulty in being fair to all employees (42%).

"There is legislation in place to make sure employers are fair," says Purdy. "But in my opinion more needs to be done from a staff training point of view. HR needs to speak to line managers and raise the issue of diversity. In terms of unconscious bias, I'm not sure how much attention is being given to this from the top down."

Charlotte Sweeney, international head of diversity and inclusion at financial management consultancy Nomura International, agrees. She adds: "Unconscious bias is one area that many organisations are beginning to consider. However, the issue it isn't just around the recruitment process. Unconscious bias is about how we make decisions and the impact our values, beliefs and biases, conscious or otherwise, can have on our decision-making.

"So while unconscious bias needs to be considered during the recruitment process, the challenge is creating an inclusive working environment, where staff know they can perform at their best and feel valued and respected for their contributions, regardless of their background."

Looking ahead, the commentators are optimistic that, despite many challenges, diversity is moving in the right direction in UK workplaces.

François Moscovici, MD of leadership consultancy, White Water Group, and co-author of Coaching Women To Lead (Routledge), says: "It is uplifting to learn so many companies have awareness and even an overall guiding policy, but at the same time implementation of that policy looks patchy and would benefit from clearer thinking and more action."

But he adds: "The report highlights that the proportion of companies with in-house [diversity] networks seems low compared to the best practice we observe in our more enlightened clients."

Sweeney adds: "I do think the future is more promising than the poll suggests. There are factors outside our control that will ensure that diversity and inclusion have to stay on the agenda. For example, the constant advancements in technology will challenge us to think about how work can be done differently; the changing demographics will force companies to think about the changing talent pools and what employees expect from their employers. Things such as flexible retirement, more support for carers and more autonomy around how employees work will continue to grow in importance.

"The advancements in social media will also force companies to think about how they communicate to their employees and how they ensure this is fully accessible."

But she adds: "The majority of firms have not integrated the concepts of diversity into their business strategies and they still remain generally in the HR strategy or something people do when they have completed their day job. Change is constant and whether it is called diversity or not, companies will have to respond to these changes to attract the best talent and to continue to meet their clients' needs."

While the intentions of UK employers with regards to diversity and equality paint a promising picture, the experts agree the results of HR's survey throw the spotlight on the need for a clear, business-focused strategy in UK business, supported by an actionable route map.

Our survey shows this is sadly lacking.