Turning the page on HR Turning the page on HR

Bias in HR practise is an historic issue that, unfortunately, still exists. Despite many studies proving that diverse workforces are more profitable, productive and effective, cases of discrimination still make headlines. For example, in October 2018 Amazon confirmed it had scrapped a recruiting tool previously touted as the ‘fairest way’ to source new talent. The system failed, not because it deviated from its coded objectives, but because its machine learning was polluted with the biases of those who created it.

The above failure isn’t because the business benefit of diversity, at least in theoretical circles, is misunderstood. It is now commonly accepted that diversity is a business boon; in large part because it is now a widely studied subject. Amongst widely read papers from Harvard, McKinsey and Bersin by Deloitte, Boston Consulting group research found that businesses with a more diverse workforce are on average 19% more profitable than their peers whilst also being more innovative. A separate study by Coverpop discovered that decisions from ethnically diverse groups outperformed those made by majority-white decision-makers by a massive 87%. These findings are seeping into common business thinking; sparking organisations the world over to overhaul their diversity practises.

HarperCollins' historic writers HarperCollins' historic writers

Diversity in an industry that struggles with diversity
However, implementing diverse business practise is no small feat. Overhauling a firm’s approach to diversity is difficult; especially so if the industry it operates in has traditionally is with not being homogenous, just as publishing has. Alongside HarperCollins, who started out producing bibles in 1817 before going on to publish the likes of CS Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien, Harper Lee and Agatha Christie, the other members of the ‘big five’ of English-language publishing - Penguin Random House, Hachette Livre, Macmillan Publishers and Simon & Schuster – recognise the need to improve within diversity. 2019 Government research found that just 11% of employees at London publishers were BAME. The results echo those of a 2017 survey that claimed 90% of the city’s publishing workforce were white. Anecdotally the industry is also known to have an issue with class.

Yet, John Athanasiou, Director of People at the UK arm of US publishing giant HarperCollins UK, is a big believer that if a firm overhaul their approach to diversity they can reap benefits for their people and brand as well bottom line. His solution to this issue has been to focus on being strategic when it comes to implementing a cultural shift – setting key measurables around diversity – whilst also getting senior leadership understanding of the issue, challenging the hierarchy, and leading the restructure through recruitment. It’s because he understands to be successful in 2019, businesses have to be truly meriocratic. “The business has changed and developed and ultimately, you need the very best people working together, and on the same collective goals to achieve greatness,” he tells HR Grapevine.


You need the very best people working together, and on the same collective goals to achieve greatness


Transforming D&I at HarperCollins
In Athanasiou, it looks like HarperCollins have a leader up to the task of proper D&I transformation. Earlier in his career, he was employed by media giant Time Warner, in part, to look after executive talent acquisition. Founding the firm’s LGBT+ network in the early 2000s, Athanasiou believes this is where he first started understanding the business necessity of diversity programmes. “I think that’s where I started my journey in dipping my toe into diversity. I could see how that changed the perception of the talent that we could attract at the time. It was a big move for a media company,” he explains.

Five years after founding the group, Athanasiou arrived at HarperCollins with the goal of revolutionising the company’s culture through the implementation of a whole host of D&I initiatives. Having now been in his role for over a decade, Athanasiou has set his sights solidly on creating an inclusive culture, free from the diversity issues he’s aware the industry has experienced in the past.


When we talk about culture, we have to talk about D&I, the two are completely interlinked


Setting culture targets
One of the most important factors to improving D&I at the firm, Athanasiou believes, is getting strategic around culture. It has resulted in a new perspective at HarperCollins on the relevance of D&I. “When we talk about culture, we have to talk about D&I, the two are completely interlinked. The publishing industry has woken up to the issue. I’ve strategically been working on it for about five or six years, but had been doing things before that.”

In practise, this involved creating cultural guidelines which worked based on merit; alongside, importantly, measurables that everyone can work towards and be judged against. This involves whole-business KPIs too. Athanasiou explains: “We’re building an environment of respect and inclusion where everyone is judged on the value that they can and do bring. It’s about meritocracy at the end of the day and it’s around these strands of attraction and recruitment, retention, development and inclusive environment and measuring – In order to progress, one needs a clear understanding of the current landscape of the company as a whole so we can measure our progress.

Facts boxout Facts boxout

The inclusion of D&I in the resourcing process
A recent change that Athanasiou is proud of is the implementation of a blind recruitment model. “It isn’t enough to just be aware of our biases – we need a system in place to make some change is happening,” he says. As part of the launch of this new practise he ensured that every hiring manager was invited to an unconscious bias training session. The three-hour session focused on information around structured interviews: how to use panels; understanding the benefits of multiple opinions; and scoring before conferring. “If you haven’t been through it, you can’t, and shouldn’t, be hiring,” he explains, adding that “all of these things are culturally ingrained in how we now hire.” The company’s system also automatically takes out any CV details that inform the reader of race and gender. By doing this, it is removing as much bias as it can.

As a result of the new system, real progress has been made at the publisher but Athanasiou wants to entrench this type of practise further still. “It’s early days for us, but we’re so impressed that we’re going continue to improve these practices,” he explains. “We’re changing platforms. On their system you don’t even see a CV. You screen based on questions; you can have as many as you want but it recommends five or six and you’ll really fundamentally taking out any and all biases based on CV as there’s loads of research that shows a CV is not a good predictor of success. So moving to this model really does encourage a transparent and fair process and allow us to score on merit and nothing else. I genuinely believe we’re leading the way in publishing and maybe in media in general with this area and it is exciting to see how our understanding of these techniques will help diversify our workforce now and in the future.”


We’re building an environment of respect and inclusion where everyone is judged on the value that they can and do bring


The role of senior leaders in D&I
Yet for the culture to change – to become more inclusive and more diverse – it’s not just on-the-ground practises that need re-inventing. Athanasiou believes that senior leadership buy-in is crucial. At HarperCollins, this is happening, in no small part because the HR function is willing to challenge the company executive.

Athanasiou is clear that the support of senior management has been key. “The CEO very quickly got what I was trying to achieve and has been incredibly supportive, going to bat for initiatives that in some cases really challenged deeply-set habits and perspectives. But, and this is crucial, he and all our senior exec team see exactly how improving our D&I though changing our culture benefits the business in the long term.’


It isn’t enough to just be aware of our biases – we need some form of system in place to make sure change is happening

The journey of improvement
As the new blind recruitment system evidences, HarperCollins is still very much on a journey of discovery through combatting bias in the workplace. Over the course of his career, the relevance of D&I on the business psyche; employers are learning just how essential it is that their people are treated fairly, and the return on investment that this can deliver.

And whilst HarperCollins are having some success he’s the first to admit that the company still has a lot of work to do. “I feel like we’re on a journey of change and it may take a long time to get to that final destination, but really it’s about the journey and about taking every opportunity to truly create a company that is representative of our readership in that everyone is represented and championed. That’s the key bit,” Athanasiou concludes.


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