Feature

Is diversity A numbers game or a genuine will to change?


Are HR's efforts to improve diversity failing?

Words by Beckett Frith | Design by Adam Pettigrew

Words by Beckett Frith


Design by Adam Pettigrew

Diversity is increasingly working its way up the business agenda – but it’s far more complex than just getting a wide variety of candidates through your door. You might scroll through the ‘about’ section of your company website and realise all the faces staring back at you are very similar. You might look around at all the couples at your Christmas party, and notice how nobody has brought a same-sex partner. You may walk up the stairs in your office and realise you would need to make changes if you ever happen to hire a person who uses a wheelchair. As a result, you might be prompted to do something to introduce a little diversity to your organisation.

This could include requesting a diverse list of candidates for your next senior hire or tailoring your recruitment advertising to attract a more diverse candidate pool. However, Kai Adams, a Partner at executive search firm Green Park, warns that such attempts to improve diversity can put off the very candidates you hope to attract. “Our network of high-profile BAME candidates report that they are frequently approached for trustee and board opportunities once they reach a certain level of seniority,” he explains. “The sense they are left with is that this relates to the diversity they bring, rather than their experience or ability.”

And it’s not just BAME candidates experiencing this. Adam Bradford is a social activist, entrepreneur and business adviser who has Asperger’s syndrome – a form of autism.

He recalled a time he was approached because of his condition. “I’ve been very vocal about having Asperger’s,” he said. “[As a result] I’ve been approached by a recruitment agency for a vacancy in campaigning – something I am interested in. However, the offer wasn’t as earnest or straight-forward as it first might appear. Bradford continued:

“They told me they wanted me to apply because it would be ‘nice to have someone from a different background’.” Clearly, reaching out to candidates just because you like the idea of having a diverse shortlist isn’t working. Not only does it pose ethical problems but questions whether a company is actually on the lookout for the best hires.

However, law firm Hogan Lovells are one such business who are working towards more authentic diversity. Elizabeth Kerry, Diversity & Wellbeing Manager, explained that their award-winning transgender inclusion programme had to run through the entire company. “We wanted our trans inclusion programme to be as comprehensive as possible,” she said. “This meant engaging internally through lunchtime talks and awareness raising, and also engaging externally for assistance in drafting and launching our gender transitioning policy as well as our trans inclusion training.”

She adds that it is key to note the difference between diversity and inclusion. “Inclusion is about the environment you create for people so they can bring their whole selves to work,” she says. “When you do this correctly by creating an inclusive environment, you allow people to flourish and leverage their differences. You celebrate their unique perspectives.” Instead of simply calling for diversity to come to you, should companies instead aim to create a community that is inclusive and accepting of diversity? “Candidates need to be offered an agenda for change, for development and for action, and want to be approached on the basis of their experience, passions and expertise, rather than to tick a box and look good in the photos on the website,” explains Adams. “Organisations that want to ensure their senior leadership reflects the communities they serve need to understand why that is relevant, and how the board will be more effective when that is the case.”

She continues: “I suggest employing a 'pincher' approach which ensures you have support at the top as well as engagement from those on the ground,” said Kerry. “Talk to people – show those at the top the business case for diversity and inclusion and then have them communicate this throughout the organization.” It’s a crucial point, ensuring that everyone is involved. She adds: “Talk to those on the ground [your staff] to find out what their lived cultural experience is; don't just make assumptions.”

Additionally – and perhaps crucially - Bradford suggests focusing on the positive aspects of what diversity can bring to your organisation which, in turn, could help change the narrative on attracting diverse candidates. “Some people with Autism have a very sharp focus, for example,” he explains. “They might be able to do a lot of admin work more efficiently than a neurotypical person. Your attitude should be to look for the value they can bring you, not just how they can get your token numbers up.”


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