Editor’s letter: June Sarpong on creating agents of change at work

The return of our Breaking Barriers Spotlight series sees June Sarpong take up the reins as Guest Editor. Here the Diversify author explains the role we all have to play in making our workplaces more diverse and representative.

The United Kingdom is by definition a mixture of nations, cultures and peoples, diversity is what we do - it’s on the tin and in our DNA!

Our desire to access the people, goods and services we need regardless of natural or manmade boundaries has led us to become a global trading nation with a society that has attracted individuals from all over the world, thus creating the multicultural melting pot we pride ourselves on. However, the inclusivity that is needed to make diverse societies function effectively is not always evident either by statistic or if we are honest in our daily experience.

For example, research from Inclusive Employers unearthed the fact that 25 per cent of British workers have experienced discrimination in the workplace, with one in three under-25s believing a "glass ceiling" still exists preventing them from progressing.

Business leaders and department managers must ask themselves how far do the statistics reflect their own experiences. And if so, is this one of the workplace culture challenges they have tried to address?

Of course, the workplace is reflective of the challenges we face in society in general so for a lot of us tasked with delivering diversity and inclusion, it can feel like paddling upstream. However, our workplaces even more so than our classrooms (which can be impeded due to religious preference, gender selection, parental social class or local demography) are where the diversity of the UK comes together and can be where we get things right.

For many of us the workplace is where we spend the majority of our time and will be the only time that we have regular contact with “the other”, someone who may be different to ourselves on account of their culture, background, gender, class, sexual orientation and mental or physical ability. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for CEOs, department heads and managers to impart positive change for wider society where politicians have failed.

Failing to make Britain more inclusive and equal has historically delivered costly results, from the damage during the suffragette protests and the industrial strikes of the last century to the rejection of the EU more recently.

Conversely, success in achieving diversity and inclusion rather than resulting in costs actually delivers benefits to our workplaces and ultimately to the UK. The data is in and it’s conclusive businesses and organisations with diverse teams perform better due to the range of skillsets, experience and ways of thinking available. Mckinsey’s Delivering through Diversity report found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 15 per cent more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. For ethnic and cultural diversity, the 2014 finding was a 35 per cent likelihood of outperformance.

Read: Breaking down the barriers faced by female entrepreneurs

This is of course good for the bottom line, but the benefits don’t stop there. In addition, research that I commissioned from Prof John Hills and Prof Lucinda Platt at the LSE revealed that if the incomes of women in general, and men from ethnic minority groups matched those of white British men they would have extra incomes totalling an extra £127 billion per year, averaging at £9,300 per person. So, if we get diversity and inclusion right everyone wins including HMRC!

Fortunately, we don’t need to go through the conflict that our forebears had to go through to achieve inclusion; we have the tools before us to achieve this in a much more benign fashion. In recognition of the benefits that diversity can bring many companies whole industry sectors have invested in initiatives to help improve diversity and social mobility. To cite a couple, Access Accountancy and Prime Commitment which both seek to attract talent from less affluent backgrounds into careers in professional services and law respectively, through offering work experience to sixth form students. This is important because not only do young people from less affluent backgrounds become more familiar with the culture of the workplace making them more adaptable in future but for employers it provides them access to talent from groups that may be underrepresented in the employer’s current catchment pool.

Employees who engage in these programmes also become more familiar with the untapped talents of people from outside the usual elite talent pools. This in turn has the knock-on effect of making the workplace culture more welcoming of diversity.

Admittedly most of us do feel comfortable with who and what we already know and understand so we can offer employee engagement activities in order to help existing employees feel more comfortable with diversity.

Encouraging staff to take part in volunteering initiatives such as mentoring, visiting a specialist school or community organisation working with underrepresented groups can make a big difference. This is actually one of the 6-Degree steps I recommend in my book Diversify. Degree 1 is to "Challenge Your Ism"; closely look at your unconscious bias and where your blocks might be. I worked with the team at Oxford University to create an ISM Calculator specifically for this.

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In terms of the actual practicalities of acquiring and progressing diverse talent through the ranks of our companies and organisations, we actually have the ability to do that if we have the will to recognise and address unnecessary bias in our HR and talent processes. For example, many employers are offering alternative, non-graduate entry routes to careers in recognition that not every role requires a degree especially when the degree classification and institution are taken into account over the actual degree studied. Furthermore, employers that only recruit graduates with a 2:1 or above from a Russell Group University will continue to lack a wide range of skillsets and experience in their talent pool. There are of course less culturally bias ways to assess a candidate’s suitability for a role other than grades and where they studied.

We can also ensure that current systems are not impacted by existing inequities as we move towards inclusion. This means that all new starters have access to the same induction, mentoring or buddying opportunities. Any employee benefits must not have been awarded in a discriminatory fashion i.e. parental leave, sabbaticals, etc. And of course, complaints and disciplinary procedures are applied fairly and objectively.

I fully appreciate that often how much we are able to achieve as agents of change is subject to the willingness of colleagues in positions of influence to really embrace diversity over the familiar and status quo. We see this often in the workplace with the failure to recruit, retain and promote those who are not white, male, middle class, middle aged and straight. The counter argument that we employ the best talent from the best universities in the world and that the rigorous recruitment and progression requirements are the fuel behind success and productivity. So why should we change?

Well the status quo will not deliver the results we require other than the familiar disappointing statistics. Having the usual individuals around the table usually means they tend to self-select people like themselves with the same thought processes and therefore continue to come up with the same answers missing out on alternative solutions. These are some of the themes I tackle in Diversify through highlighting the need to colleagues to openly and honestly engage in a debate around the problems and solutions to creating inclusive workplaces of the future. This is something that all leaders and managers should do, regularly bring together different perspectives on how to authentically engage, promote and thus retain diverse talent.

We need everyone around the decision-making table, from business leaders to HR professionals, to champion the cause so we get to the more inclusive society that we need in order to fully thrive as a country. Everyone can press for change in their own teams, departments and organisations, because we are actually wasting the talents of diverse individuals with different experiences and skillsets that will be invaluable in terms of solving complex problems that impact our workplaces, cities and country. We will not solve these problems unless we diversify the individuals around the decision‐making table and business can lead the way for society as a whole.

Diversify: Six Degrees of Integration by June Sarpong is published by HQ, Harper Collins.


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