Why equality and diversity must be a strategic priority


Benefex’s chief people officer Kathryn Kendall, and director of ecosystems Gethin Nadin, give their points of view when it comes to diversity; Kathryn from her HR-stance, and Gethin from his continuous research into the employee benefits industry and its trends. 

They look at what is the role of HR when it comes to diversifying the workforce, what can be done to help minority groups be fairly represented in the workforce, and why is diversity so important to business in the UK?

So, why should we be so concerned with diversity?

Kathryn: The benefits of a truly diverse workforce are well documented; it creates a competitive advantage for that business and makes it an employer of choice. But diversity isn’t something we fall into, it’s something we must fight to achieve and sustain. We have a responsibility as an organisation to support the rights of every single one of our employees, and ensure that each of them, regardless of their race, gender, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else which makes them who they are, is able to achieve something amazing.

Gethin: Diversity is good for business. Employers who invest in diversity see several benefits, such as an increased ability to attract employees. They show greater innovation, and improved financial performance. We also know that employers are keen to do something about it. Globally, more employers than ever are committed to diversity, with PwC reporting that over 90% of them say it’s a priority for their business.  However, less than half of global employers have someone at C suite level sponsoring diversity.

This new way of thinking about diversity is that its focus is on the individual as opposed to it being a blanket initiative. Diversity is not just about having a policy; it’s about using it to leverage results. The more diverse your workforce, the more different ideas and opinions you have that will improve your services or products.

Isn’t HR already on top of diversity?

Kathryn: Equality and diversity within the workforce is a major strategic focus for most – if not all – organisations.

For most of us, equality and diversity is something that we already support and promote within our business. I can’t think of many situations (though I’m sure some do exist) where organisations think that having a workforce which was equal and diverse was a bad idea, or where they go out of their way to block diversity.

So, if everyone does that already, then surely our work as HR professionals is done? We’ve created an environment without prejudice, where employees from any minority group feel supported and are able to thrive. Surely that means a big tick in the equality/diversity box, and we can move on?

In reality, if we think that, then we are kidding ourselves. Sure, we might not be actively discriminating against minority groups. ‘Not actively discriminating’ is something very different from actually having a truly diverse and equal workforce. Equality and diversity at work cannot be a reactive process – it must be proactively driven in order to be achieved.

Gethin: People may look at me and think I don’t ever have to worry about discrimination. However, I’m still in a minority because of my sexual orientation. Diversity at work has always been something I want to encourage, but also something that has caused me a lot of anxiety over the years. Not knowing what my colleagues, business partners or customers think about me is something that never goes away, no matter how far your career advances.

At work, my diversity has rarely been mentioned, and I think that’s how it should be. I want a casual nod that acknowledges the difference, but I also want to be treated the same as everyone else. My sexual orientation has never and will never define me. So much so that there will be people reading this that are hearing it here for the first time, but I couldn’t have a conversation about diversity without mentioning it.

At Benefex, it has never been an issue for anyone I’ve worked with and that’s what HR needs to cultivate for every employee, regardless of what their difference is. Keeping on top of diversity is much more than ticking a box during recruitment, It’s more about empathising with employees. 

Do current recruiting methods encourage diversity?

Kathryn: The chances are that if you were to take a cold, hard look at the demographic of your employee body, it doesn’t truly represent the demographic of the area within which your business is situated, or indeed the country as a whole. 

Yes, most of us are unlikely to directly discriminate against a candidate from a minority group when they apply for promotion or come for interview, but how many of us actively seek to target those minority groups to ensure better representation within the workforce when it comes to recruiting? For most organisations, the majority of their most senior people in the business will be white males. We might not be deliberately preventing minority groups from accessing the top table, but how can we do more to actively help them to get there? 

We regularly receive hugely positive feedback from individuals from minority groups about how supportive a culture we have created. That’s great, but for us, that’s not enough. We still have a predominantly white workforce, and we still don’t have enough people from minorities in senior roles. We’re working hard to change that, and it will form a core part of our people strategy in the years to come.

Gethin: You may have seen a BBC research piece which surfaced recently. Two men with identical CVs applied for 100 jobs. The difference between them? Their names. Adam was offered three times as many interviews as Mohamed despite their similar skills and qualifications. It would be naïve of us to see this as a coincidence, and it is something which HR needs to address immediately. It hurts both the candidate and the company to overlook good people because of “unconscious bias”.

What about age diversity?

Gethin: In their recent global diversity and inclusion survey, PwC reported that age – more than gender – is a strong predictor of the degree to which diversity is perceived to be a barrier to progression for employees. Engaging the youngest members of your workforce might be the best way to start dealing with your diversity strategy. When you look at the results of the EU referendum and the recent presidential elections, there is a clear divide that puts the youngest members of society on the side of global mobility and cultural integration.

The CIPD says that more employers than ever value older workers, and are positive about letting people work for longer rather than losing them unnecessarily as retirees. Older workers can add huge value to any organisation as they bring a wealth of technical and life experience to a role, and they tend to have a positive influence on younger employees, which creates a good peer-to-peer learning culture.

Kathryn: Having a broad age range within your workforce is not only great for productivity, but great for company culture as well. Flexible, phased, or late retirement options could be made available to those wanting to stay in work, because, if someone is passionate enough about something to the point that they want to stay working into their 60s or even 70s, why would we want to force them to leave? They must be great advocates for your organisation, and their productivity and motivation would be sky-high. 

Training is also a great way to encourage longevity at work; too often we make the assumption that our older employees don’t want or need additional training, but in a constantly changing workforce dominated by advances in technology, we must offer all our employees the same training and progression opportunities.

Is HR working to close the gender gap?

Gethin: Despite the progress made since the Suffragettes marched on London, the differences between the genders at work is still in a bad place. Currently, there are more CEOs in the world called ‘Dave’ than there are women – that can’t continue. 

In addition to the glass ceiling, the pay gap has also highlighted an ugly disparity between male and female salaries. The UK’s gender pay gap is ranked 21st out of 33 countries, so there is a lot of work to be done by employers in 2017. To give some real-life context, 10th November is ‘Equal Pay Day’; the day on which a man will have earned, on average, the same amount as a woman will earn in a whole calendar year. The average woman in the UK will essentially work for free from that point up until the new year, and as this becomes more prominent in the news and media, female workers’ productivity will decline.

Kathryn: Despite increased national focus, the gender pay gap shows no signs of going away any time soon. The Government has introduced a mandatory reporting requirement for larger businesses from 2018. Any company with over 250 employees must publish their salaries and bonuses paid to both male and female workers, which is laudable, but in my view it goes nowhere near far enough towards tackling the issue. We need to analyse the issue at root cause rather than simply attempting to paper over the cracks.

We know that men and women enter the workforce at broadly the same salary level, so what is it that goes so badly wrong after this point? It is easy to blame it entirely on the fact that women remain the primary caregivers for children, but I think, frankly, that that is a cop out. The gender pay gap exists regardless of whether or not women have children, and so I believe that all organisations have a responsibility to properly analyse where that gap has opened up, and what the causes are. Once we know those causes, we are able to really tackle them.

Is it simply that men are typically better at asking for pay increases? Is it that roles which typically attract more male candidates (sciences, engineering, sales, etc.) are valued and therefore paid more highly than those typically attracting more female candidates (administration, caring, etc.)? Is it that a request for flexible working patterns and competitive salary progression are mutually exclusive? 

There isn’t one simple answer, but as employers we have a duty to our workforce to get to the bottom of what remains one of the strongest pieces of evidence that inequality is alive and thriving within almost all UK businesses.

What about LGBT employees?

Gethin: The Human Rights Campaign reported in its annual Corporate Equality Index that more top employers support LGBT inclusivity than ever before. The group gave 100% ratings to many of them, most of which are Fortune 500 companies. 

There is a growing trend in the U.S. for companies to add health insurance benefits for employees who want to transition to another gender. Employers that ensure their private medical caters for this process are taking huge steps towards encouraging diversity at work.

An investment of this nature will cost money for something that will only benefit a very small percentage of their workforce – that’s a great commitment. As a benefit, this has a huge personal impact on the employees that opts to use it. Helping an employee to tackle an issue that has no doubt blighted them for life is the golden chalice of employee engagement in my opinion.

Kathryn: It is not enough to simply “not discriminate” against minorities during the recruitment process. As organisations, we need to actively promote our stance as an equal opportunities employer, so that all minority candidates not only feel comfortable to apply to work for us, but know that we are actively working to drive and embrace a diverse workforce right across our business.

With sites like Glassdoor and LinkedIn readily available for use by us and our employees, we have no excuse to not display our internal practises and culture for all the world to see.

Kathryn Kendall is chief people officer and Gethin Nadin director of ecosystems at Benefex. 

This article was provided by Benefex. 


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