Why firms need to take responsibility for diversity and inclusion

19 Apr 2021 By Paul Farrer

Businesses looking to become more diverse need to carry out a truthful assessment of where they fall short and then implement a strategic and measurable plan, says Paul Farrer

As a white, middle-aged male who had a privileged upbringing, I am the first to admit that I have benefitted from a system where the odds have been stacked in my favour. I am also embarrassed to admit that acknowledging this privilege only came recently, when the imbalance in society was brought into sharp focus during the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Whereas in the past I would have brushed it off, this time something made me delve into all sorts of research and I quickly realised that I have probably been unconsciously biased all my life. I didn’t consider myself to be biased; like most businesses, Aspire has a multicultural workforce with an even gender split. I knew a little about different religions too – historically half our board of directors have been LGBT+ or female. But the sad fact was I had bias. We all do. 

It became clear that I had plenty to learn about the issue of diversity and inclusion as a business owner and employer. With 95 per cent of the working population employed, employers have the opportunity to create change – if we can change attitudes in the workplace it will influence how society behaves. What an opportunity. 

It’s 2021, nearly half a century since the Equal Employment Opportunity Act was passed, yet still, there is clear inequality in the workplace. Why is it that black, Asian and minority-ethnic workers have been hit the worst by Covid-19 redundancies? And why is the unemployment rate for disabled people double that of the rest of the UK population? Why is it that if you send the same CV and just change the name, a BAME candidate has to make 60 per cent more applications simply to secure an interview? 

As a recruitment agency, we have thought long and hard about our responsibilities in this area as individuals and as a collective. Can we honestly say that we have done enough when it comes to diversity and inclusion? Has any business for that matter? 

Definitely not, and in my opinion this is the ugly truth that we need to confront – and face up to not just for moral reasons, but because there is also a compelling business case to be made for creating a more diverse workforce and inclusive culture. Research shows that organisations who take this seriously are more innovative and also outperform their competitors. 

This makes tackling the issue of diversity and inclusion a no brainer, whichever way you want to look at it. But how can businesses address it? What are the steps that need to be taken and the processes that must be implemented to build a truly inclusive organisation? 

Assess the status quo

It’s difficult for any of us to change without having first taken a long hard look at ourselves – a truthful assessment of how and where we fall short. To start with, what does your organisation look like? How diverse are you? How do you match up to national, regional or sector statistics? 

Following an audit of your employees you will identify the gaps – it’s then a matter of finding out why they exist. So you will also need to audit your processes, the opportunities available to staff, the treatment of your stakeholders, the standards of your suppliers and partners to understand what needs improving. You will then be better placed to recognise your faults and move forward. 

Develop a strategy 

Admitting past mistakes and promising to change is one thing, delivering on these promises is something different altogether. It’s why any plan to become a diverse and inclusive business needs to be strategic, measurable and carefully implemented. 

My advice is to approach diversity and inclusion in the same way that you would when developing a service, launching a product or expanding into a new market. By this I mean map out a strategy and give it the time, resource and energy it deserves. Do this and you will make progress – that’s certainly been the case here at Aspire.

Continuously educate stakeholders

This is perhaps the key point and the one that sits at the heart of diversity and inclusion – the need for us to gain a deeper understanding of these issues cannot be underestimated. Many people will tell you they have a diverse group of friends and understand the issues. However, having run awareness training, feedback has demonstrated that without listening to and observing the challenges faced by all areas of diversity, we actually know very little.

When I talk of education, I don’t mean a one-off training session to improve the use of language, a tick box workshop or an all staff email to make sure everyone’s using the correct terminology. From where I stand, businesses should hold regular workshops where those who have experienced challenges share their insight and discuss the issue, training sessions and meetings in which employees can raise concerns and ask questions without judgement. 

Continuous learning is vital. After all, the landscape is evolving constantly and businesses have a responsibility to keep up with the pace of change. 

Make I&D a board meeting issue  

Change within businesses can only truly happen if the people at the top support and invest in it, not just financially, but emotionally too. It’s why I believe diversity and inclusion should be on the agenda at board meetings. I can only speak from my own experience here – which is still early in its development – but it has without doubt created a positive energy at Aspire and one that stands to benefit our commercial performance. 

I don’t profess to be an expert but if I could offer one piece of advice it would be to take a good look at yourself, acknowledge your bias and take positive action. I’m not naive, and realise that changing ingrained behaviours and attitudes will take time, years in fact. But I also know just how much there is to gain from true diversity and inclusion, not only from a moral standpoint, but from a business performance perspective too.

Paul Farrer is the founder of recruitment firm Aspire

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