How the investment and savings sector is working to improve diversity

Steve Butler explains how an initiative aiming to share best practice around I&D is growing representation in a section of the finance industry

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced society to work in different ways and re-evaluate many priorities. Many businesses are still facing severe financial pressures: not always the ideal setting for advancing cultural shifts which are seen as long-term investments, and this creates long-term ramifications of the pandemic for diversity and inclusion. 

Already in some parts of the economy we are seeing echoes of the financial crash of 2008, where businesses adopted extensive cost-saving activities to survive, including reactive HR practices such as compulsory redundancies, simplifying contracts, outsourcing and deskilling. 

The good news is that the investment and savings industry is doing something to keep pace with the changes and progress we are seeing in the rest of society despite the issues caused by the pandemic. Through a cross-company initiative, the industry is championing a more inclusive culture to ensure emerging best practice continues throughout the pandemic. 

In early 2016, a group of leaders in the investment and savings profession recognised that future success for their clients, members, employers, and shareholders would need an inclusive culture and they took action to accelerate progress towards this. 

That initiative led to the Diversity Project, which has since made huge strides in raising awareness of the issues and galvanising support for their aims. Initially the Diversity Project co-ordinated research involving 24 asset management firms and nearly 4,000 individuals. The results confirmed what they already knew: the dominance of men in the asset management function, the high degree of private education in the industry, and the low number of Black employees, relative to the working population as a whole.

Today the Diversity Project has 87 member firms including asset owners, investment managers, consulting firms and wealth managers. The Diversity Project also includes 40 partners and supporters such as industry bodies, search firms, D&I consultancies, and social enterprises. Together they have built a significant annual programme of events supported by a range of reports, guides, and videos to help member firms on their journey to develop best practice.

One example of best practice in my own organisation took place during the national lockdown. As an alternative to a physical staff conference, we hosted a daily hour-long online event over the course of a week attended by the whole business. Our objective was to open the conversation about all aspects of diversity and inclusion, with each day focused on a different element of diversity awareness including mental health, gender, disability, ethnicity, and age. 

Each hour included a pre-recorded video of someone’s own lived experience, a presentation about the challenges and issues they have faced, and a panel discussion about how different challenges can be overcome. 

The week was entirely hosted by staff from within the business involving 30 different employees over the week (out of a business of 150). Despite the restrictions of COVID the event bought the whole business closer together. Collectively hearing the unedited personal lived experiences of colleagues from a broad cross section of the group meant we all felt the intimacy of their stories and could not fail to empathise with everyone involved.   

Feedback from the week was astonishing, with many individuals stating how proud they felt working for a company willing to have these open conversations, how connected they felt to their colleagues and there was a real passion to embrace an inclusive culture. Participants appreciated the opportunity to have a platform to share their stories and receive acknowledgement from their colleagues about the challenges they have faced. 

This was just one initiative we took to improve diversity and inclusion, that we hope can be easily replicated by other businesses.

The pandemic also proved we can operate remotely. To emphasise the positives of this experience and reinforce that this is now the norm, we adopted the Diversity Project’s flexible working manifesto, which includes all employees working flexibly in some way, with flexibility designed into job specifications and managers being helped to oversee remote, dispersed colleagues.

Our approach to building an inclusive culture is already bearing fruit. Staff tells us they feel more connected to one other, and it’s become a key feature of why people want to work for us.

Steve Butler is CEO of Punter Southall Aspire and author of Inclusive Culture