Is HR a hypocrite when it comes to D&I?

With CIPD data showing the HR profession is overwhelmingly female, white and straight, is HR itself walking the talk on diversity and inclusion?

Whether it’s IWD, Black History Month or Pride, such events have their place. Well-intentioned, they create positive internal and external messaging around inclusion. But if you’re looking for inspiration on how to mark these events you would do well to steer clear of ‘Sally in HR’.

Last year ‘Sally’ announced that Jamie Oliver would be coming in to cook jerk chicken for the staff of ‘Plant8Con’ in celebration of Black History Month.

Thankfully Sally is a work of fiction. The avatar is a white female HR practitioner created by actress Kelechi Okafor based on cringe-worthy workplace tales that have been shared on her podcast.

Sally makes for both hilarious and uncomfortable viewing – no-one in the profession would want to see themselves in her. But HR is predominantly made up of white females just like her, and though she may be a parody Sally is also a window into how employees view HR’s own diversity.

“I created ‘Sally in HR’ because I believe in using my anger effectively. I was angry and I’m still angry about the ways sexism, ableism [and] racism go unchecked in the workplace,” explains Okafor.

She points out that there’s a tendency to think that D&I workshops and relevant policies somehow absolve people of their bias, but those initiatives only touch the surface of the issue.

“The maddening nature of HR is that it is essentially unable to rectify itself because the people who are trying to do the fixing are also what is broken about it,” she concludes.

And Okafor has a point. The most recent CIPD membership survey revealed that 74% of its members are female and 88% are white. Such an obvious lack of diversity in the profession begs the question: is HR hypocritical?

And does the profession’s own lack of diversity undermine its attempts to create inclusive workplaces? If Sally in HR makes for uncomfortable viewing then such questions call for equally uncomfortable, albeit necessary, reflection.

“If HR can’t walk the talk about diversity and inclusion then it doesn’t have the licence to lecture the rest of the organisation,” says Frank Douglas, CEO of Caerus Executive. Douglas notes that in his roles at Scottish and Newcastle and Misys, he is the only black male to have ever held the position of HR director at either a FTSE 100 or a FTSE 250 company.

“Why haven’t there been more since then?” he asks.

It’s an urgent question, particularly in light of recent research by Green Park that found the number of FTSE 100 leaders from BAME backgrounds had dropped from 9% in 2018 to 7.4% in 2019.

“It’s 2020 and we’re still talking about diversity on boards and management teams – and, of all places, the HR profession, where it shouldn’t be an issue,” adds Douglas.

But it is an issue, and not just across race and gender. The CIPD’s figures suggest that 9% of its members have a disability (against a national average of 19% of the working population).

Meghan Horsburgh, head of diversity and inclusion at Sodexo UK&I and its global disability leader, accepts that the profession lacks diversity but argues that HR shouldn’t be expected to have immunity to a problem that affects society as a whole.

“This isn’t HR specific. You only need to look at politics at the moment to see we’re not alone in these challenges,” Horsburgh tells HR magazine.

Nelarine Cornelius, professor of organisation studies at Queen Mary University of London and vice president of the CIPD (membership and professional development), believes that HR’s problem is rooted in its past.

She notes that the old ‘personnel management’ style of HR was very much administrative in nature, and believes that HR still struggles to shake that stereotype.

“The way that people migrated into personnel management 30 years ago was often from other administrative roles. We are still seeing that,” explains Cornelius. “It reflects the profile of much administration around the country, which is dominated by women and in particular white women.”

Cornelius says that while HR has worked hard to become a profession it has been slower to change the way people are trained.

“Many people from ethnic minority communities would have oriented towards professions like accounting or law, because they were looking for a job that gave them stability. Many in the BAME community would not have seen HR as a traditional profession,” she adds.

The trouble for HR is that this lack of diversity risks undermining its impact on the wider organisation.

“HR has had a credibility problem for as long as there’s been HR,” remarks Josie Kinge, director of equality and diversity and lecturer in HRM at Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia.

“An effective HR function will practise what it preaches in terms of diversity. But it’s also about them being honest – so if they’ve got a diversity issue they need to demonstrate that they are doing something about it.”

Jane Hatton, founder and director of disabled employment consultancy Evenbreak, says that the HR profession should not underestimate the value of lived experience.

“HR departments whose teams contain a diverse range of people will have much greater internal intelligence of the barriers faced by some groups of people,” comments Hatton.

“Diverse members of the wider workforce will have more confidence in HR if they see themselves represented there. This gives staff confidence to raise issues around inclusion, and managers to ask advice on the subject.”

It’s a view shared by Kate Williams, head of private sector memberships at Stonewall: “Having an HR team that reflects the diverse communities a business wants to engage with can create a better understanding of the challenges that currently exist, along with identifying ways to overcome these barriers.”

The same can be said for all characteristics. Older members of the HR profession have seen the job change significantly in the past 20 years. That experience and acquired knowledge should be leveraged to find solutions for complex problems.

“It is not just about having policies in place. We need to make sure they translate into good practice,” says Louise Ansari, director of communications at the Centre for Ageing Better.

But are we placing unfair expectations on HR? Shakil Butt, founder of HR Hero for Hire, thinks that any accusations of hypocrisy levelled at HR need to be seen in context. “HR professionals create their own reputation and that becomes a rod that everyone beats us with,” says Butt.

While that may be true, the fact that HR is responsible for driving D&I within an organisation means that it is bound to be scrutinised more intensely. “We don’t need to have all of the answers but we do need to be part of the solution,” adds Horsburgh.

The solution cannot simply be about creating greater access to the profession. We need to also consider whether we are fulfilling on the promise of opportunity and inclusion for underrepresented groups.

While 20% of entry-level roles are occupied by BAME HR professionals this drops to just 7% at senior level. Similarly, men may fill a mere 13% of junior roles in the industry but this increases to 27% for all senior leadership positions.

The drop-off in BAME representation comes as no surprise to Butt. Even with eight years as the HR and OD director of Islamic Relief along with 25 years as an accountant, his experience of interviewing for a new role left him in no doubt that bias exists at all levels of the profession.

“The message I was getting was very clear. I was included to show there was a diverse pool of candidates, but there was a barrier to getting past that final hurdle,” recalls Butt.

Raj Tulsiani, CEO of Green Park, says that often the reality of HR as a career is very different than the expectation. “When BAME HR professionals go into organisations and see that biases are not being addressed it then creates a leaky bucket,” comments Tulsiani. “So you can hire people in but when you look at the exit data you will find a disproportionality in it.”

If the ‘Sallys of HR’ are dominating junior roles then it could be argued that senior leadership positions are the domain of ‘Alan from accounts’.

At senior level it is common for male leaders to join HR via other operational roles such as accountancy or law – functions that are male dominated and valued the most by CEOs, claims Douglas. Tulsiani says that affinity bias is often at play here too with male leaders still preferring to hire other male leaders.

Horsburgh argues that if we’re to counteract that bias and support HR leaders from minority groups to break through to senior roles, then we need to make sure we’re exposing employees to diversity at all stages of their careers.

Cornelius agrees and is passionate about mentoring’s role in achieving this: “Sponsorship and reverse mentoring are absolutely mission-critical if people are to raise their levels of awareness and understanding.”

While diversity has certainly moved up the corporate agenda, David D’Souza, membership director at the CIPD, has expressed concerns about the quality of work being done in the D&I space.

“Some organisations have made good progress, but others have taken approaches that attempt to make the problem go away. They PR a response to it rather than actually deal with the root causes,” he says. “You need a co-ordinated sustained approach to solving those issues and a degree of bravery.”

The need to be courageous is mentioned often in this discourse. Horsburgh calls for the profession to be brave enough to ask tough questions. The implication is that we’ve not done that to date, but why?

“We are not comfortable discussing race as a country and even less comfortable with it in corporate settings,” says Douglas. “You have a white HR leadership talking to a white C-suite, trying to figure out what to do about black and Asian employees. And when you have a lack of diversity in the HR function where do you get insight?”

Increasingly that insight is coming from employee and industry networks. The CIPD’s LGBT group was formed in 2016 to champion diversity among its own employees and has since been opened up to CIPD volunteers and members.

“[The group] offers an important channel for employee voice and a safe space for LGBT people to network, share experiences and support one another at work,” says Edward Houghton, CIPD head of research and co-chair of its LGBT network.

In 2019 the CIPD leapt more than 200 places in Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index, proving that industry networks and workplace advocacy have a valuable role in improving diversity. However, there is no equivalent network for other minority groups. D’Souza told HR magazine the CIPD is committed to launching more networks this year.

It’s a development Douglas thinks is long overdue; he’s already garnered interest for a BAME industry network.

“One of the reasons the LGBT and the female agendas are high in the mindset of most corporations is because you have networks and external groups like The 30% Club and Stonewall. They create a visibility that puts pressure on the C-suite,” adds Douglas.

But Stonewall’s Williams warns that such networks cannot be expected to solve diversity problems on their own.

D’Souza agrees, arguing that engagement will be key to achieving the progress that so far has been lacking.

“HR need to listen, but also appreciate that they can’t retreat into a room to design an intervention. They need to keep designing with the people that are going to benefit from it,” he says.

Tulsiani asserts that progress would be aided by installing a chief diversity officer on every company board, which would mean that HR is held to account by someone outside the function. But he also thinks that employers need to apply more rigour when hiring for HR roles.

“Some of the recruitment processes for HR are less impact-assessed in terms of bias than some of the processes they are keen to impose on other parties,” he claims.

These are all valid observations and proposals, but at the heart of this issue is a very narrow definition of what we consider diversity to be. That will need to broaden if the profession is to become more inclusive.

“What tends to be celebrated is gaining traction in the gender or LGBT space. Organisations are more willing to talk about gender because of the pay gap and because they are being measured against it,” comments Butt. “But there is very little appetite for including race, religion or disability diversity.”

Even within those characteristics we need to be aware that there is a spectrum of differences. Horsburgh, who has dyslexia, says that hidden disabilities, illnesses and neurodiverse conditions need to form part of the conversation.

She sat on the ‘Broadening up inclusion’ panel at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition last year alongside Butt, and both agreed that the dialogue was refreshing.

“That conference was a turning point. For the first time there were a lot more visibly different people occupying speaking slots,” recalls Butt.

This is an encouraging report, but there’s still a lot more to do to achieve balanced representation among the HR population.

In her role overseeing professional qualifications for the CIPD Cornelius is reviewing the placement of equality, diversity and inclusion in the curriculum; to date EDI has not been a compulsory element of the CIPD qualification.

D’Souza has also confirmed to HR magazine that the CIPD will be commissioning an independent review into the lack of diversity within HR. It may well reveal some uncomfortable truths, but there’s clearly a commitment in the HR community to confront that and do better.

“We do face some challenges within the profession, and people expect us to be making differences in workplaces,” adds D’Souza. “To give credibility to that we need to make sure we’re leading the way.”

This piece appeared in the February 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk