Casting the net furtherJune 2013
We’re living in a fast-changing world where the make-up of our communities is evolving like never before. So how is business responding and what is “encouraging diversity “ really all about? Liz Jones reports
Diversity in the workplace is one of the latest buzz phrases in business. The argument for it seems clear: a business made up of people from various backgrounds will thrive because diverse opinions and attitudes can identify more solutions to problems, think of more alternatives and innovations than a business of me-toos. James Suriekwi in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, goes a little further and believes that groups have the potential to be smarter than individuals too.
We’re living in a fast-changing world where the make-up of our communities is evolving like never before. Demographically we are getting older too. Indeed, age discrimination is now being seen by City of London employees as a more widespread problem than sex bias, reports a leading recruiter.
Researchers said 33.5% of the City employees they interviewed felt their bosses were “very committed” to gender diversity but only 22% believed they had a commitment to age equality.
The discrimination was more likely in roles such as trading and sales than among middle and back office workers, said the survey conducted by Astbury Marsden, a London-based specialist in financial services recruitment.
Mark Cameron, Astbury Marsden’s chief operating officer, summed up the scenario: “The City is getting far better at supporting and developing female staff. The huge effort that London’s financial services sector has made to broaden its workforce is clearly reflected in positive feedback we have had from employees.
“While sex discrimination is on the decrease, negative attitudes towards co-workers on the basis of age and a lack of commitment to age diversity are seen as a wider problem.”
Cameron questions whether employees’ impressions are realistic. He observes: “We aren’t saying that the negative consequences of age discrimination are bigger than other forms of discrimination, just that employees see it as more prevalent.”
Looking ahead, he believes that, as life expectancy in the UK increases and later retirement is proposed by the government, age will continue to be a contentious subject in employment. “With people likely to have longer working lives in the coming years, this is an issue that is going to become increasingly important,” he said.
Business psychologist Cary Cooper was not surprised that City employees were complaining of age discrimination.
Cooper, who is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School in northern England, said many employers worried that staff getting older in the job would qualify for bigger salaries. “A lot of them want to get younger people in because they’re cheaper,” he said.
Employers’ other fears were that older people could not handle modern business technology and might have more sickness absence as poorer health is regarded as accompanying age.
However, Cooper emphasised the principle that employment should be determined by job suitability, not influenced by age, gender or race considerations.
Linda Bellos, one of the UK’s leading equality law specialists and former leader of Lambeth Council (the UK’s first ever equal opportunities employer), agrees and feels the term ‘diversity’ has pushed equality off the agenda.
“Employers want to be seen to be ticking boxes, employing their quota but then not offering any training of staff, so the culture of the company doesn’t change,” Bellos said.
“The target has become numbers when what the business should be looking at is the quality of the products or service that it provides.”
To be an ethical company in Bellos’ view is to know your market and that is a simple case of asking some pretty fundamental questions, she says. “An ethical employer thinks about the skills they want to recruit. There should be criteria for filling vacancies – you don’t hire on a hunch. Equality is recruiting the best person for the job, not about quotas.”
Businesses need to be fair and learn how to interview properly and how to write job descriptions and have applicable criteria. Criteria that can be challenged and is rational, Bellos maintains.
Bellos doesn’t believe that diversity is complex. “It’s pretty straightforward,” she says, adding that the manoeuvring to address minority groups means that a lot of talent goes to waste – especially in the middle and lower ranks of an organisation.
She admits personal recruitment biases exist but she also says that people can learn not to act on them. “I don’t like people who eat with their mouths open, but I’m not going to let my personal foibles get in the way of recruiting that person. We can learn to overcome personal biases,” she says.
Bellos is sceptical of certain ‘diversity practices’. For example, flexible working is a good thing “as long as it is not a detriment to women, as it currently is, and is applicable to all employees” and mentoring schemes are ok as long as they are for everyone. “Even 45 year old white males may want mentoring,” she points out. “Equal opportunities apply to everyone.”
However André Flemmings of Rare Recruitment believes targeted mentoring schemes definitely have their place. Rare’s mentoring programme, Articles, for minority students who are aspiring lawyers has been awarded the UK Diversity Legal Award for ‘Attracting Talent’ to the industry, and its Civil Service Summer Diversity Internship Programme has won several accolades including one from Race for Opportunity and recognition from Rate My Placement.
Rare also developed Google’s mentoring programme to attract more female computer scientists to go into coding, known as CodeF and it is currently working on the Top Black Talent mentoring scheme for Google and its own Target Oxbridge; a free programme that aims to help black students and students of mixed race to increase their chances of getting into the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge.
What seems clear is that it’s not just businesses that are unsure about diversity. Candidates too labour under a number of misconceptions.
Flemmings, manager of Rare’s bank and finance programmes, says among certain ethnic groups, workplace falsehoods abound. “There’s a lot of unpicking of myths to do,” he said. Many undergraduates from ethnic minority backgrounds have misconceptions about what some employers want. “I’ve been through it,” he explained [Flemmings hails from a single parent, Afro-Caribbean background who won a local private school scholarship]. “Even as a German/Philosophy graduate from Oxford, I never thought that a banking institution would want me. It’s about challenging those misconceptions and helping those who lack the confidence and the knowledge.”
Many British African students, in Flemmings’ experience, tend to believe that in order to be a lawyer you need to have studied law; to be a banker you need to have studied finance and accounting. “It’s simply a case of just not knowing that in the UK you can study what you like and it doesn’t necessarily impact on your choice of career. You can study one thing and then take a conversion course, to become a lawyer, for example. “Diversity means you have as good a chance as anyone but you need to be able to play the game,” he said.
Leveraging the talent pool
While companies may regard their work opportunities as obvious, it isn’t always regarded in the same way from the outside. Businesses need to look at their recruitment practices and acknowledge that they may not be appealing to people from non-traditional backgrounds, said Flemmings. “Companies need to leverage the talent pool and to address what people from non-traditional backgrounds need. They need to point out the opportunities so that they can be taken.”
So how can businesses ensure they’re doing their utmost to encourage diversity in their organisations? Sandra Kerr, director of Race for Opportunity at the BITC, says there are number of positive actions to be taken. “We’ve found that companies with active outreach programmes – going out into their communities, speaking at schools, colleges, etc – have better representation. Show yourself that you are oriented towards your community.”
Companies also need to actively monitor its recruitment process and question it if it is falling short. Companies that monitor get better results, she maintains. “Business needs to be encouraged to think about training with regards to recruitment too, to ensure that personal characteristics do not stop the recruitment process.”
Currently in the UK, some sectors have made successful inroads into diversity via better recruitment practices and demographic shifts. “More sectors are showing a closer representation of their communities than ever before,” Kerr said.
And how does she respond to critics who say diversity in the workplace is about ticking boxes? “You do hear that kind of thing. But the world is changing. One in four primary school children in the UK comes from an ethnic minority; one in eight of the workforce and one in 16 at senior level (and that number is flattered by international appointments). Businesses need to recognize this.”
Indeed, Kerr sees this as the main test for business. “Recognising that things are changing and that you have to do things differently is a big challenge,” she said.
Businesses also need to promote training within their organisations and be aware of the culture within their organisation. “The world is changing and you need to connect with it. In-house surveys can help with managing the workplace culture and helping to make all people feel welcome,” she said.
The third challenge is for business leaders to take responsibility. “We need to action plan for the future we want,” she said. “It calls for a top down approach. Leaders that walk the talk are an absolute necessity.”
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