Diversity in the workplace

Not so long ago, the term ‘diversity’ was probably most closely associated with the ethnic make-up of a workforce and seen as little more than a box that middle-aged men in grey suits had to tick on a form.

Nowadays, to some diversity is something of a buzz word and encompasses everything from the colour of our skin, our religion, sexual preference, age, gender (or transgender) or a disability. The corporate world is more aware than ever before of the differences that make us unique and since the Equality Act was introduced in 2010, we are (in theory at least) legally protected from discrimination in the workplace. The Act followed several other key pieces of legislation, dating back almost 40 years and starting with the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, the Race Relations Act in 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1995.

But does the legislation really reflect the state of play in today’s workforce? That may well depend on whether you’re in the public or private sector and the industry you work in. The public sector, for example, is always keen to reflect the community it serves and also has a legal and moral obligation (the public sector equality duty) to promote diversity internally and externally. When the DDA was introduced local councils were the first to start making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate workers with a disability and the NHS probably wouldn’t be able to function without its hugely multicultural workforce.

Old habits die hard in the City though. Newspaper headlines are still littered with multi million pound sex discrimination claims from aggrieved women who have, more often than not, been overlooked for promotion in favour of their male colleagues who won’t be taking time off for maternity leave. Women accounted for just 18.7% of FTSE 100 directors in 2012, according to recent figures by the Professional Boards Forum BoardWatch. Former BP Chief Executive Lord Browne also recently claimed the Square Mile was still “intolerant of homosexuality” and that he was only “one of a handful of publicly gay people to have run a FTSE 100 company.”

That’s not to say that many major blue-chip companies aren’t gay-friendly though. Gay rights and equality campaigner Stonewall lists Accenture, Ernst & Young and Barclays in the top 10 of its Workplace Equality Index which measures how companies treat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees.

There has, arguably, never been a better time to be an older worker either, especially if you want to work for B&Q. Over a quarter of the 35,000 employees at the DIY retailer are over 50. The mandatory retirement age, which gave employers the right to force staff to retire at 65, was scrapped in 2011 but B&Q were well ahead of the curve and have operated without a default retirement age for over 15 years.

Despite these great strides in progress, however, it seems we in the UK are pretty cynical about the corporate world’s motives to promote diversity in the workplace. Almost half of UK workers think that diversity programmes are ‘only designed to attract good PR’, according to a recent survey by recruitment consultancy Adecco Group. Around 27% of participants in the ‘Unlocking Britain’s Potential’ study of 500 businesses and 1000 employees believed that diversity campaigns were mainly created to generate publicity rather than change company culture. There is no question, however, that diversity is good for business. More than two thirds (69%) believed companies with a diverse workforce were more likely to be successful and 70% believed a diverse workforce improved company culture.

So it’s clear that diversity in the workplace is a win-win for employers and employees but whether it’s something that businesses are, ultimately, just paying lip service to, remains to be seen.