In a world of remote working where workers are no longer bound by geography, employers have the opportunity to change their hiring strategy and alter the demographics of their business. But how do companies select the right talent in a market likely to become awash with candidates over the coming months? How can we support them in recruiting and maintaining a more diverse workforce? Investigo’s D&I Committee held a networking event to discuss this very topical and emotive subject on Thursday 16th July. Hosted by Senior Director Stuart Bonner, the event featured contributions from Dan Robertson (VERCIDA Consulting), Graeme Paxton (Caraffi), Stephanie Hamilton (ISS UK), Angharad Kenward (Investigo) and Hardeep Rai (Kaleidoscope Investments).
Dan Robertson, CEO, VERCIDA
“The way that organisations are approaching D and I at the moment is completely the wrong way around,” said Dan Robertson. “They tend to have an events-based approach. Lots of conversations and talks. They’ve celebrated Pride, Black History Month. Those activities are useful in themselves but they don’t do anything to challenge the norm and status quo. Most organisations are heavy on diversity but very light on inclusion, focusing on how to get differentiation, but they then don’t know what to do.”
Dan was concerned that corporate culture can swallow up any differentiation in an organisation. “We continue to see a ‘now you’re here, be a bit more like us’ mentality. It drowns out the point of having differentiation in the first place. If you want to be effective, we have to start thinking of the approach of inclusivity, belonging, psychological safety within our overarching D&I agenda.”
Graeme Paxton, Founder, Caraffi
As a talent acquisition consultancy, Caraffi has helped many organisations to devise effective D&I strategies. Graeme Paxton believes that companies need to drive corporate strategy from a people function and stressed the need to take advantage of the “unique opportunities presented by COVID.” He said, “How can we drive diversity or improve business performance from a more diverse workforce as a result of the unique circumstances we find ourselves in? It won’t fall in our lap – changes in the post-COVID world still mean an emphasis on talent departments to transform themselves around workforce planning, performance management, things that are not necessarily D&I topics, to unlock the opportunities we have right now. How can we use the environment we’re in to address the problems we haven’t done before?”
Stephanie Hamilton, Director of People and Culture, ISS UK
“My role’s about creating value through people,” said Stephanie Hamilton. “Values, traditions, beliefs, and combining them into the workplace.” While Dan was sceptical about the value of an events-based approach, Stephanie feels that “it creates a conversation. It’s an endorsement for people in the organisation and something they can join in on. It’s an opportunity to inform and educate people. There are watershed moments throughout history. COVID is a watershed moment for D&I.”
Stephanie believes that the concept of D&I should be so engrained within corporate practices that it’s insufficient to refer to it as a priority in its own right. “We don’t prioritise D&I by ‘labelling’ it as a priority because business priorities change and this is a core behaviour. Right now, we’re looking after healthcare and COVID. It is a priority in our business, but this priority will change, as COVID changes. D&I is sprinkled liberally across everyone who works here. It’s important every day.”
Angharad Kenward, Senior Director, Investigo
“Recruitment is historically not very diverse, especially at the senior end. It’s seen as a boys’ club,” said Angharad Kenward. “When I joined Investigo, I wanted to be proud of the fact that I didn’t want to be at my desk all the time. I had a commitment to changing the culture of the organisation. We’ve come a long way and we’re totally different to where we were four years ago – our culture of flexible working, Women’s Forum, LGBTQ network. But we’re still on a D&I journey and we’re evolving every day as different elements come into it, like mental health and the post-COVID world. The vision is to create a workplace culture where talent can thrive, internally and externally.”
She continued, “We can look at targets and quotas and bold statements, but unless your culture supports every person and their sense of belonging, it’s a complete waste as they won’t be successful within the organisation. Companies have sensed the need to support their communities, not just in their own organisation. It’s a responsibility we should explore. This is our ninth D&I event in two years. If, as an organisation, we educate people and start a discussion and narrative, we’re really happy with that.”
Hardeep Rai, CEO, Kaleidoscope Investments
Hardeep Rai set up Kaleidoscope Investments in 2015 to invest in disabled people who have great business ideas. Having personally met over 1,000 people with disabilities, Hardeep wants to “change perceptions.” He said, “there’s a lot of fear about hiring people with a disability. A feeling that they do not add the same value.”
Like Graeme, he believes that the post-COVID world represents a significant opportunity for organisations from a D&I perspective. “I feel that as a result of COVID, the situation we’re in will generally make a difference in D&I in the workplace. Just before COVID, there was a move towards people with disabilities having a higher profile.” Hardeep referred to Caroline Casey’s Valuable 500 initiative, a year-long campaign to get 500 businesses to commit to putting disability inclusion on their leadership agendas. Launched at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Summit in Davos, the initiative succeeded in gaining the support of global business leaders and bringing disability to the forefront of corporate thinking.
He added, “Employers’ mindsets are changing. Disability’s becoming a board-level agenda item. The government’s talking about bringing a million people into employment by 2027. The initiative had started already but COVID has disabled society. People are stuck in their homes with nowhere to go. Ironically, it’s raised the profile of people with disabilities, many of whom are accustomed to living in isolation. We need to encourage people to share how they cope with isolation, which can help us learn lessons from that.”
Hardeep also feels there has been a greater focus on environmental, social and governance issues (ESG) and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “People are thinking more about the social impact of the environment and raising its profile, and disability is a part of that.”
The pressure for flexibility
“People are seizing it,” said Dan. Both “core groups who might have traditionally wanted flexible working, such as working mothers and people with disabilities,” and “people who didn’t traditionally need flexible working. The old way of working, commuting, feels so old school and redundant.” The argument that certain jobs can only be done from home “doesn’t stack up.”
Dan identified two principal pressure points that are bringing about change: employees who say they want to continue working flexibly rather than going back to work, and employers who were traditionally blockers now allowing their people to do certain roles at home. Tech is a massive enabler for this change. “We’re having lots of conversations with clients about ramping up flexible and agile working policies and procedures. There’s been lots of investment in tech.” Dan agreed with Stephanie’s assessment that this represents “a watershed moment” for D&I.
Angharad cited the value of hiring “people who bring a slightly different dynamic to the table. We all know diversity is related to the performance of a business.” She referenced a quote from Dan that “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance and belonging is dancing like no one’s watching.”
Dan’s concern is that the concept of presenteeism has not been eliminated, but has instead moved from the office to the home. “I’ve never been so exhausted. The constantly Zooming in culture is sapping the brain. When you grab a sandwich on the way to a meeting, you get 10 minutes of reflection time. Now most don’t even have that 10-minute break. It’s one Zoom call followed by another. On the surface we can all work flexibly and remotely, but we’re not having a conversation about changing presenteeism or organisational culture which has moved from physical space to tech space.”
Stephanie feels that the crisis has accelerated talk about diversity. “Before this, all the talk was about automating low level transactional tasks. Now the talk is about people and how it will affect them, particularly the low to mid-paid employees. Those are the roles that will be affected. That’s when we see diversity coming into play and different ways of thinking about flexible working.” As the conversation starts to focus more on the subject of people, compassion is crucial when it comes to adopting a more inclusive mindset. “I’ve supported people professionally and personally while sitting at home,” added Stephanie. “I never thought I’d see so many people in my home. Some people in the LGBTQ community are uncomfortable about putting the camera on. They might be in a position where they’re not out yet and the environment around them will present their lifestyle. Parents working on an ironing board don’t want us in their homes. The watershed moment is not talking about automation anymore, but talking about society. It's more people-led. When people say ‘put the camera on,’ there’s a certain demographic of people who aren’t ready for you to see that. We ‘re so invested that we forget it’s a step too far.”
“One in five in the LGBTQ community go back in the closet when they start their first job,” said Angharad. “The D&I movement expects everyone to be who they are straight away, but maybe they don’t want to be.” Being in an environment where you’re not ready to share certain things can erode the value of working from home. “We need to make sure we’re responsible in these times and create an environment that’s comfortable for everybody.”
Where diversity meets business value
Stuart posed the question of whether companies are eliminating unconscious bias, the habit of hiring in their own image. Graeme feels that this is changing, but not at the required pace. COVID presents a unique opportunity to accelerate this. “Most conversation is about whether there’s an opportunity. There’s always been an opportunity, it’s just that now it’s more obvious.,” he said. “The problem that a lot of organisations have is that, other than knowing it’s the right thing to do, they don’t necessarily understand what performance metrics they need. First, it’s about workforce planning – what you are trying to do and making the company part of that. Second, it’s how you manage the performance of that job, not digitising the prejudices you already had. Until we sort this out, it might mean promoting people who aren’t ready yet and also missing people with a diverse background who are brilliant, as we don’t have the right performance metrics in place. What are our jobs, how do we measure them, how do we promote people who do well, how does this affect the balance sheet? You need a direct link between these for genuine transformation.”
Hardeep said, “I anticipate that we’ll move away from hiring someone just because they have a diverse background. You have to look at them as an individual and the skills they bring to the table. One reason we’ve been successful is that we don’t look at disability, we’ve looked past diversity. How does the individual add value to the organisation commercially? Make sure the process is fair and equal. A lot of people with a disability still can’t access application forms on websites. The mindset of the board needs to change first, which is where the Valuable 500 initiative is fantastic. It’s important that all diverse backgrounds are equally represented, not just those who shout the loudest. People should be picked because they add the greatest value.”
Dan questioned the likely effectiveness of the BBC’s pledge to put £100m towards race equality over three years, when it produced revenue of £4.8bn over the last 12 months. “Stop tinkering around the edges. The outcomes you want to achieve have to be the starting point, hiring the best talent and creating an organisation which is inclusive. How do you inject those outcomes into systems to make sure that happens? You won’t address it by just having mainstream activities and race on the sidelines.”
From a business perspective, effective D&I initiatives have a huge impact not only on PR, but on the bottom line. Hardeep illustrated the potential value of tapping into the disabled community alone, which is “a gigantic marketplace.” The value of “the Purple Pound” – the spending power of disabled households – is £250bn a year. Indeed, in order for business to embed and maintain effective D&I strategies, Graeme feels diversity has to have a performance implication. “We have to speak like businesspeople if we’re to get things to actually change. Where D&I has not been an add-on but a business driver, this has been underpinned by business performance.”
There’s a perception that being from a minority group, something so simple as looking or sounding different to the majority in an organisation – even not using the same corporate speech, one attendee suggested – can be a hindrance to progression. It’s important not only to level the playing field through your hiring and progression processes, but to give people the confidence that they can progress.
“It’s about speaking to the heart of the people this matters to and allowing them to talk to you,” said Stephanie. “I can’t stand it when companies make it fashionable. If you come from a position of privilege, sometimes you don’t allow a conversation as you’re worried about offending someone or saying the wrong thing. If it doesn’t speak to your heart and who you are, you might think you can’t engage with that person. It’s D&I corporate culture in a nutshell, and it’s the type of approach that does not work for me. I believe that D&I cannot be distilled into a label of being a priority or a big statement. I believe the biggest change comes from our intention and commitment to speak to people who don’t have the same privilege as you. It’s not a marketing slogan or a big spend, it’s where culture and diversity meet and create a sense of belonging for everyone.”
Angharad referred to the importance of role modelling and allyship. “Allow people to visualise where they can get to. It’s important that they see someone they can relate to in the organisation who has achieved what they want to achieve.” Hardeep added, “Employing individuals to be the best versions of themselves is critical. If they’re disabled, many are often starting from a lack of confidence as they’ve been knocked back by so many rejections or unfair judgements. Before we put anyone forward for any role, we assess them thoroughly to understand their capabilities, offer training where needed and then offer them opportunities with regard to their career, be that in employment or self-employment. That’s the only way they get to perform to the best of their abilities.”
Projecting a personal agenda
“Until Black Lives Matter, I’d never considered the fact that it’s everyone’s problem,” said Rachel Newbold, one of our attendees. “Allyship is our way out of this. We’ve got women’s groups, racial networking groups, Pride groups, but everyone in those groups is of that demographic and we’re asking those groups to lead us out of the problem. Our leaders should be part of that conversation too.”
Stuart applied the same thinking to recruitment. “I always hear phrases like, ‘I don’t get on with him or her.’ By only hiring people in their own image, untrained managers are going directly to market and unconscious bias comes into play. What are organisations doing to train middle managers to get the right level of diversity at grassroots to become managers?” Angharad referred to this as zombie leadership. “Diversity brings diversity of thought and innovation, which most organisations will need post-COVID. We need people to challenge the status quo in organisations or they’ll miss out on huge opportunities.”
The sports market is one of the very few industries that doesn’t have that problem, argued Graeme. “It recruits purely on performance. The manager doesn’t get to select. They’re moved from the recruitment process. It’s done on criteria and science, then it’s up to the manager to get the best out of the talent. You don’t have that elsewhere. In sport, it’s about the talent.”
Dan stressed the need for organisations to take immediate action on racial equality. If they do not capitalise on recent momentum, “this moment in time will be lost,” he said. “We’ve been talking about it in the UK for 20 years, since the Stephen Lawrence enquiry. Organisations need to be really brave. As white people, we have privilege, so we have to take the lead. A black friend of mine said he feels like a walking library, with everyone asking him what it’s like to be black. I can understand it, as we need to build cultural competencies, but we can’t just exhaust minority colleagues. There are contradictions – leaders need to take the lead and educate themselves at the same time.”
Many thanks to our panellists for a very interesting discussion. If you’d like to talk to us about devising and cultivating an inclusive workplace culture for your business, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.