People & Leadership

What role should HR and People teams play in diversity and inclusion?

Who should be responsible for diversity and inclusion in the workplace – HR, or the C-suite? What role can technology play? We asked the experts.

Who should be responsible for diversity and inclusion in the workplace – HR, or the C-suite? What role can technology play? We asked the experts.

The focus on diversity and inclusion in the workplace has never been so heightened.

Organisations across the globe now see diversity and inclusion as a serious concern, and there is a strong emphasis on CEOs to take ownership and lead the way in driving accountability across senior management to create fair, equal and inclusive workplaces.

“Businesses that abdicate their responsibility to HR are missing a trick. It needs to be led at C-level as it impacts brand, corporate purpose and performance,” says Jennie Oliver, HR associate at global freelance community The Hoxby Collective.

Anna Holloway, communications specialist at HRbyHoxby, says never has there been a more critical time for businesses to re-evaluate their approach to diversity and inclusion.

She says: “Where before organisations ‘just’ had a duty of care and a moral obligation to act on this, there are now compelling statistics that show this is a commercial issue.

“Further, the recent gender pay gap publication in the UK has forced businesses to consider the reputational impact.”

As Holloway alludes, this greater emphasis on diversity and inclusion is not only because it’s the right thing to do; there are considerable financial and business benefits to be had.

According to a study by the World Bank, gender equality would enrich the global economy by an estimated $160tn (£120tn) if women were earning as much as men in the workplace.

At an organisational level, companies with a gender diverse workforce in their executive teams are 21% more likely to experience above average profitability.

Meanwhile, companies with a strong ethnic and cultural diversity are 33% more likely to perform better financially than companies with a less diverse workforce.

With highly skilled employees in fierce demand, promoting diversity and inclusion is also another means for companies to arm themselves in the ongoing war for talent.

In a PwC survey on breaking down the barriers to diversity, more than 80% of millennials said that an employer’s policy on diversity, equality and workforce inclusion was an important factor when deciding whether or not to work for them.

Workplace inclusion also creates stronger engagement as employees feel more valued.

A study by the Diversity Council of Australia found employees in inclusive workplaces are 19 times more likely to be satisfied with their job.

C-suite awareness is not enough

Despite the issue making it on to the radar of C-suite executives, results appear to be too slow according to a report by Deloitte, called Diversity and inclusion: the reality gap.

The report explains: “Organisations should consider making structural changes, implementing transparent, data-driven solutions, and immersing executives in the world of bias to give them a visceral understanding of how bias impacts decision making, talent decisions, and business outcomes.”

In a nutshell, making people aware is not enough.

This is where HR leaders have a significant role to play in supporting the CEO and senior management team to effectively implement and create a real sea change in delivering diversity and inclusion within the business.

Defining HR’s role in diversity and inclusion

With it becoming a C-suite concern, is there a danger that HR and People teams may ruffle the feathers of senior management if it takes the lead on driving diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

Vanessa Karadimos-Tonkin, chief people officer at SQS Group, doesn’t think so. She strongly believes HR’s role is to lead and influence diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

She says: “As a department servicing the wider organisation, it is imperative to drive these policies that will identify talent and diverse individuals that will take the organisation forward.”

She adds: “It is also HR’s responsibility to foster an environment where all employees feel valued and included, which in turn helps inform the recruitment strategy to make the organisation attractive to a more diverse pool of potential candidates.”

Estelle Shepherd, head of talent at What If! Innovation, agrees, and says HR and People teams have a fundamental role to play in prompting the rest of the business to “start thinking about different opportunities [the company] can create for upping diversity and inclusion”.

She adds: “Where HR is becoming increasingly talent-focused and more involved in the recruitment process, I think there are just small levers we can pull to prompt the organisation to think in the right way, and to be a little more open.”

Jessica Pallot-Cook, founder and HR consultant at Pallot Cook Consulting, points out that HR is all about talent, and “talent is everyone — not a select few”.

She says: “HR needs to be leading the organisation to ensure the right talent is in place to achieve the organisational goals — and that means having all the systems and processes aligned to this.”

Hoxby Collective’s Jennie Oliver believes where HR can help is by highlighting the disparities and identifying gaps through evidence such as data on gender, pay, and recruitment.

She adds: “HR can help with training on eliminating bias, but it needs more than that.

“There often has to be structural changes for an organisation to address these issues and an organisation that has and uses transparent data — sharing value on inclusion, building consensus and showing how diverse teams will out-perform other teams.”

Unconscious bias and HR technology

That moves us on to the topic of unconscious bias, which remains one of the key challenges in the fight for a fairer and more equal playing field when it comes to recruiting.

As human beings, we are hardwired to make intuitive decisions about other people without even realising we are doing it.

The HR technology sector has evolved rapidly in the past 18 months with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning being used in a variety of HR applications, particularly on the recruitment side where it helps eliminate bias in applicant screening and selection.

But is there a risk technology can hinder companies in the drive for greater diversity and inclusion?

Veronica Belmont, product manager at employee engagement and recognition platform Disco, points out that the problem with using technology to solve diversity problems is that it’s created by people with biases.

“Therefore, we need to make human conscious decisions to be inclusive in hiring practices,” she says.

However, Kate Graham, head of content at HR analyst firm Fosway, believes technology should really be able to drive diversity and inclusion at every stage, “from harnessing AI to screen candidates and remove any bias, to onboarding, to learning technology that educates people around this subject, to technology-supported talent pools, succession planning and career development”.

She adds: “If it’s predictive analytics and machine intelligence pointing towards the best people for the job or which people should be recognised and rewarded, then that starts to overcome gender bias.”

Littal Shemer Haim, people analytics consultant and HR data strategist, agrees that HR technology plays a vital role in driving diversity and inclusion.

She says: “Machine learning based apps can predict performance regardless of gender and other demographic variables, and as a result minimise interview biases.”

Sarah Brennan, industry analyst and founder of Accelir, a strategic advisory firm focused on the HCM marketplace, and founder of HRTechBlog, argues technology can be both a good and bad thing.

She explains: “Technology can enable both good and bad processes equally. At the end of the day we need to have deliberate, smart, fair processes for our candidates and employees.

“Until that is in place, and you are ready to enforce the practices, there isn’t much any technology can do.”

She advises HR leaders to look at areas where diversity and inclusion may be lacking:

  • Recruiting: Are you getting a diverse candidate pool?
  • Interviewing: Are people who aren’t a ‘culture fit’ being screened out by certain leaders?
  • Internal mobility and succession planning: Do you have a process and way to do this easily, and allow people to self-identify into opportunities?
  • Learning: Do you have a continuous learning programme for all your employees? Do certain groups tend to get more advantage from the programmes?

“There is a lot that can be done by the talent management solutions most companies have in place already,” adds Brennan.

So, technology certainly has a supportive role to play in driving greater diversity and inclusion, but it’s clear that structure, strategy and processes need to be the foundations on which everything else is built.

Boosting diversity and inclusion right now

So what is the single biggest thing HR and People leaders can do right now to boost diversity and inclusion within the workplace?

Mike Williams, chief people officer at Byron, advises: “Take a step back, relook at your people strategy and reflect on your organisation’s culture in terms of diversity and inclusion — what’s it been like at its best and what’s it been like at its worst?”

He suggests HR and People leaders ask themselves the following questions to help with the reflection:

  • What do your teams have to say in your engagement surveys and what are your statistics saying?
  • What are your top three big strategic priorities and how will those priorities drive business performance?
  • How is diversity and inclusivity represented in your organisational values?

At Byron, Williams says there has been an increase in the number of female chefs taking up head chef roles thanks to its talent programme.

He says: “It’s traditionally been a male-dominated role, but we saw some great examples of performance through our talent programme and are now extending this to engaging our female chefs earlier on in their career.

“How you treat your people should be thought of in the same way as how you treat your customers.”

SQS Group’s Karadimos-Tonkin says HR and People leaders should introduce stronger flexible working policies to support peoples’ varying circumstances, “with a particular focus on targeting women who are returning from maternity leave or career breaks to start families”.

She says SQS Group is working closely with a charity called Modern Muse that focuses on educating girls and young women about the benefits of pursuing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers.

Work experience is key

For What If’s Estelle Shepherd, encouraging your organisation to offer work experience opportunities to young people is key to breaking down barriers to diversity and inclusion.

She points out that offering work experience is low-risk and easy to organise so is something that HR and People leaders can do right now.

“For a lot of young people today, there are massive preconceptions of what it actually is to go to work.

“They can grow up and think ‘that’s for someone else, I’m not a person who wants to wear a suit and tie and sit in a stuffy office’, but we all have an opportunity to open up our doors and show them how the world of work has changed.”

She continues: “We can give kids who might not be thinking they could have a career the chance to see what could be possible for them and just how much more engaged and relaxed workplaces have become.”

For HR consultant Jessica Pallot-Cook, training is a key area in helping boost diversity and inclusion.

She says: “We need to ensure all employees have equal access to training; we need to focus more on people management as a skill rather than an assumed ability and drive inclusion throughout these messages.”

The value of data

Hoxby’s Jennie Oliver says it all comes down to data.

“The key thing for HR to do right now is to get the data to the board,” she explains. “Shine a light on it. Highlight the positives of empowerment, diverse teams, how it impacts brand, and how it supports the C-suite to make changes.

“Hoxby promotes open dialogue, diverse teams, different working styles and this is what makes our brand so attractive.”

Now is the time for HR to push diversity and inclusion further

HR and People leaders have a responsibility to drive greater diversity and inclusion but it’s not just their sole responsibility. It needs to involve all the senior leadership team.

“HR and People teams now have the ammunition to push gender pay parity up the agenda and into the boardroom,” says Holloway.

“They have the skills, experience and understanding of a business’ culture to develop strategic plans to address the issues head-on.

“If ever there was a zeitgeist moment for diversity and inclusion to become front and center, this is it.”

Byron’s Mike Williams agrees: “Gender pay gap reporting [in the UK] and the subsequent press coverage on pay gaps should for most organisations have raised equality to the fore of people’s minds.

“HR should have cottoned on to the significance of this shift, and the fact that strategies for diversity and inclusion have become ever more important.”

Although there is no magic formula for boosting diversity and inclusion overnight, there are lots of simple, practical things that businesses can do to start making a sea-change happen.

With better employee engagement, higher productivity and stronger financial results all up for grabs from being an employer that embraces diversity and inclusion, why would you not make this year the one that your company acts to create a diverse and inclusive workplace?

Sage People live demo

Want to attract the best people, retain your key talent and increase productivity? Request a free, live demo of Sage People and discover how it can help you achieve your goals.

Request a free demo