Employers ‘still taking the wrong approach to diversity’

Future Talent Conference hears inclusion initiatives only work if they are part of business strategy, as experts warn of an inadvertent ‘class ceiling’

HR leaders have been urged to think of diversity as a strategic initiative instead of a policy if they want to address persistent issues such as a lack of social mobility.

Attendees at the Future Talent Conference in London yesterday heard that although it was important to tackle diversity deficits and both unconscious and conscious bias, the issue should not be thought of as separate from an organisation’s talent plan.

Speaking at the event, Simon Fanshawe, author and co-founder of Diversity by Design, said: “Number one: diversity is simply an approach to talent in order to achieve strategic objectives.

“It doesn’t sit on its own or hang in space. It only works as something which enables you to do what the company is trying to do and enables the person themselves to be valued for what they bring to the company.”

Fanshawe said that although diversity deficits were “egregious” and “absolutely everywhere”, tackling the problem through standalone initiatives and new policies was not the answer. Employers should instead think of incorporating diversity as the “way you do things” and go beyond a generic, catch-all HR policy, which many organisations still deploy.

He added businesses needed to think about how they could benefit from a diversity dividend by considering the types of difference they need to achieve their goals and building their teams accordingly. Diversity should be approached strategically, he said, because it is a "very human experience" which celebrates the power and enjoyment of difference.

Also speaking at the event, Hashi Mohamed, barrister at No5 Chambers and broadcaster at the BBC, said employers had inadvertently created a “class ceiling”.

Organisations have been “obsessing” over addressing social mobility at entry level, he said, at the expense of understanding issues around retention and progression or acknowledging how an individual's class origins stay with them even after they overcome the hurdles of getting into the world of work.

Mohamed said redacting names from CVs, creating non-graduate schemes and improving interviewing techniques were helpful tools, but that company targets could not be divorced from the wider societal context. He gave an example of someone who had commented they were happy hiring someone with a working-class accent, but would be unhappy putting that person in front of a client.

“If we think of the humanity of all that, these initiatives don’t necessarily just function in a vacuum,” Mohamed said. “They function out there in a society. They function in a society where we still have our own conscious and unconscious biases.”

Mohamed added that managers would be less likely to hire properly, retain and help the progression of diverse talent if conscious and unconscious biases about social mobility remained unchallenged.

Jonas Prising, chairman and CEO of ManpowerGroup, said organisations planning to rally behind a diversity strategy needed to simplify their objectives. He explained his company approached diversity as a strategic global initiative to adjust to the changing world of work.

“Gender is the one that we have chosen across our organisations globally because it is one thing we can measure in every geography,” Prising said. “So we start this based on what is happening in the labour markets, which is that women are underrepresented at almost all levels of the organisation.”

Employers that want to accelerate their company’s progress and access an underutilised talent pool should ensure women are equally represented across the business, said Prising. He said ManpowerGroup had previously only set diversity targets, but it was when it approached gender diversity as a strategic initiative that they started to “move the needle” towards a more equally represented workforce.