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Are diversity targets a distraction?

Paul Modley

To review the original article click here 8th Aug 2017

While there is no mistaking the positive sentiment or admirable intentions behind cross-organisational diversity initiatives, where targets are involved, not all firms benefit from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

The advantages of diverse workforces are now widely understood, yet too many firms still struggle with building workforces which are reflective of wider society. With this in mind, setting diversity targets seems, at first glance, a practical and pro-active solution. However the complex reasons behind disparity in the workplace mean that, if not implemented in the correct environment, targets can actually distract from what an organisation is working to achieve.

Representational imbalances, particularly at senior level, are often symptomatic of intricate and intertwined issues surrounding culture and talent pipelines from the bottom up. In this instance, setting targets, mandatory or otherwise, will not resolve the underlying causes of an unrepresentative workforce. 

Here at Alexander Mann Solutions, for example, we’re working with retail banks to boost female representation at senior level. Across the sector, the vast majority of firms have signed up to a voluntary charter, led by Virgin Money’s Jayne-Anne Gadhia, and in doing so have pledged to set and report targets for gender diversity within senior management teams. Similarly, professional management body, the CMI has recently called on firms to publish a breakdown of their black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employees to address the fact that 12.5 per cent of the UK population are BAME - yet this group holds just six per cent of top management jobs.

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While there is no doubt that these are positive steps, we should be mindful that setting and hitting targets can become a distraction from the tangible steps HR teams are taking in terms of wider diversity initiatives and future plans to achieve parity.

Rather than setting strict or unrealistic targets, HR leaders should instead concentrate on creating and fostering an inclusive culture and then measure progress to ensure that representation is heading in the right direction.

We must not underestimate the myriad of factors which contribute to deeply ingrained cultures of under-representation, and how tricky and time-consuming these can be to unknot. Implementing change in large organisations can be likened to moving an oil tanker. Often whole cultures need overturning, with HR and diversity teams working with hiring manager communities to reverse the practice of ‘recruiting in their own image’, while simultaneously promoting an inclusive EVP to diverse pools of talent.

That is not to say targets cannot add value under the right circumstances – when there is little baggage or bureaucracy which is part and parcel of long-established business. When I worked for  the London 2012 Olympics & Paralympics Organising Committee, for example, diversity targets worked extremely well. This could be attributed to four key factors: it was essentially a start-up organisation and thus easy to mould, it was a high profile event, the London talent pool is particularly diverse and we had buy-in from the top.

To truly succeed in creating inclusive workplaces, HR leaders must take inspiration from this ‘clean slate’ approach and build initiatives from the inside out, rather than narrowly scrambling towards targets. Looking forward, it’s encouraging to see that when we talk about diversity and inclusion initiatives, the millennial generation is usually a bit puzzled. These individuals innately embrace diversity in every facet through education. It is only when they start work that they come up against corporate culture.

I hope that diversity in the workplace is no longer an issue in 50 years’ time, but if we are to make long-lasting change we must harness the power of the millennials to organically influence levels of inclusivity – before existing cultures wear them down. If we succeed, there will soon be a time when targets will be obsolete. 

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