Minority interest

When the Halifax invited members of Manchester’s Chinese community to consider working for the bank, it expected to receive a mere handful of applications

Instead it got 30 responses in only two weeks.

Managers at the company’s Manchester Business Centre, as well as branches across the city, had been aware for some time that the company did not attract many employees - nor indeed much custom - from the 35,000 Chinese people living in and around Manchester.

"There was a lack of understanding about career opportunities," explains Liz Jones, whose remit includes co-ordinating recruitment and identifying physical obstacles that face people in the community.

"Chinese people are very much guided by their parents," she adds. "And if the parents don’t see a job as a career opportunity then they don’t see it as an avenue forward either."

The company began by putting up a series of bilingual posters in the Wai Yin Chinese Project, which runs an advice centre in the city’s Chinatown, asking: "Are you interested in a career with the Halifax?". In March, about 40 people - twice the number expected - packed into the centre for a presentation given by Halifax managers. Some travelled across the Pennines from Yorkshire to hear about the new opportunities.

Six Chinese people have since been offered jobs with Halifax in the Manchester area. "Whenever we have a vacancy, we have a pool of people to draw from," Jones says.

Ethnic diversity was one feature of Halifax "Fair’s Fair" programme, launched three years ago to promote cultural change within the company, based on equality. Earlier research had shown that nearly one third of staff had poor awareness of diversity, while only a quarter recognised that they had any responsibility for it.

Ethnic working parties were set up in three areas - Bradford, Leicester and Manchester - as the company realised that employing staff with a wider range of languages would increase the likelihood of attracting new customers from ethnic minority communities.

Branches in Manchester have already noticed business benefits brought about by the fact that some staff can speak Mandarin or Cantonese. This year the bank has recorded a 30 to 40 per cent increase in mortgage business among the Chinese community.

Jones is pleased to see a wider range of linguistic skills within the company. It already recruited from Manchester’s Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities. "Whenever we employ anybody, we do a follow-up with their line manager," she says. "We ask them to be aware of particular needs. They might need a change in their working hours, for example, because they cannot eat at certain times during the day."

Since 1998, the proportion of employees from ethnic minorities working at Halifax has risen from 4 to 6.4 per cent, including impressive increases from 8 to 13 per cent in Bradford, 7 to 11 per cent in Halifax itself and 9 to 27 per cent in Keighley.

Martyn Steele, Halifax group graduate recruitment manager, has stepped up efforts to bring in graduates from ethnic minorities by ensuring that people from ethnic minorities are featured on career literature and the web site. The assessment centre stage now has more emphasis on simulations rather than presentations.

"There needs to be greater cultural awareness," Steele says. "Simulations are fairer because you begin to see the real person and their full range of capabilities."

The result is that 22 per cent of applications and five out of 46 graduates recruited to its retail programme were from ethnic minorities.

But diversity at Halifax does not revolve solely around ethnicity. All employees receive training based on Fair’s Fair - including equal opportunities for women, older workers and people with disabilities.

The company set up a four-strong diversity team, including a disability manager and an equal opportunities adviser. It also runs an executive steering group, made up of 12 senior business managers, which meets four times a year to survey whether Halifax is meeting its objectives.

Malcolm Thompson, who chaired the group from 1998 until March 2001, says it is vital that the message is seen to come from the top. "If senior managers start to talk about diversity issues, then people further down will pick it up." Plus, if an employee uses racist or other inappropriate language at work, they are warned by a manager.

To an extent, Halifax branches were forced to offer more flexible working practices to attract extra staff so they could open for longer hours. In addition, 249 senior and middle managers now work part-time or job-share, compared with 163 three years ago. More than 85 per cent of female employees return after maternity leave, with about half choosing to work part-time or job-share.

Personnel adviser Michael Seeds moved on to a four- and-a-half day week in September 2000 so he could collect his son from school on Mondays. He now does a nine-day fortnight, but still works 37 hours per week. "The key thing is that you manage your customer’s expectations," he says.

When it came to disability, Halifax was, like other employers, forced to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. But it tries to go further - 250 employees use sign language, for example. "The diversity strategy is based on people doing business with like people," explains disability manager Philomena Gray.

Records show that 3.3 per cent of Halifax staff are disabled. Gray would like to see the figure closer to the national average of 9 per cent but accepts that this will not happen overnight.

In September, following a merger with the Bank of Scotland, Halifax became part of HBOS. Personnel and communications director John Lee, who was at Halifax when Fair’s Fair was launched, says it is vital that the organisation does not rest on its laurels. "We will carry on raising the bar. The programmes we have in place will be constantly reinforced," he says.

Confidence to climb the ladder

Twice a year about 60 women gather at Halifax headquarters to take part in a "glass ceiling" event.

Since the launch of Fair’s Fair in 1998, the number of female senior managers has increased from 7 to 26 per cent while, at middle management level, there has been an increase from 25 to 42 per cent. There are 33 women in executive-level positions compared with seven at the start of the programme.

Jane Pridgeon, managing director for Halifax estate agencies and organiser of the glass ceiling events, says they are mainly aimed at confidence-building. "They encourage women to believe that they can take the next step up the ladder," she says.

Too many women, she believes, stand back when there are opportunities for promotion. "They require networking skills and the ability to display ambition and assertiveness without being aggressive."

Women have traditionally made up a large percentage of staff in estate agencies without moving on to become managers. Nearly half (45 per cent) of Halifax’s 380 estate agencies are managed by women.

Women who return part-time after having children are invited to move back to full-time work and take on a bigger role. "Instead of them being held back, we promote them into management positions where they can use their people skills and become good managers," Pridgeon says.