Setting the agenda

first_img Previous Article Next Article Having a diversity policy is just the first step in a long-term process thatwill bring benefits to any organisation. Jane Lewis finds out how the RoyalMail Group and Nike EMEA are going about making their workplaces more equalWhen Henry Ford launched the first formal diversity programme in 1913 andbegan to hire black, immigrant and disabled staff, he was branded a utopiancrank with socialist tendencies that bordered on the anarchic. Times have certainly changed. The concept of diversity in the workplace –incorporating different personalities, sexualities, religions and educationalbackgrounds, as well as race, age, ability and gender – is now so far advancedthat in most quarters, it is regarded as a prerequisite for success. But the question clearly bedevilling HR professionals trying to get a gripon this most slippery of policies, is where to begin. This may explain why sofew organisations in the UK have taken active steps to tackle it – despitepaying lip service to the ideal. The first step for many is to focus minds by appointing a director ofdiversity. That was certainly the step taken by the Royal Mail Group when ithired Satya Kartara for the job last year. Diversity appointments are usually driven by two hard-nosed considerations:maximising the business opportunity and managing risk – both in terms ofcomplying with legislation and safeguarding reputation. For the beleagueredRoyal Mail – still losing £1m a day and reeling from an aggressive machoculture that culminated in the tragic suicide of an employee – the situationwas clearly pressing. To make matters worse, last December the Royal Mail’s much-vaunted newbroom, chairman Allan Leighton, was forced to counter accusations from formermanaging director of mail markets Gillian Wilmot that he had turned the groupinto a ‘boys’ club’. “I’m not blaming anyone,” says Wilmot, who lost out on promotionin a boardroom shake-up, “but it would have been nice to have a crack atthe job, and there should have been open competition.” Leighton, however,dismisses her allegations as “utter rubbish”. Kartara clearly has her work cut out. Fortunately, she comes with animpeccable pedigree. Having cut her teeth at Ford, she then became director ofchange at BHS – the high street retailer transformed by owner Philip Green, inunder 20 months, from an ailing £200m company to one now valued at more than£1bn. While her remit at the Royal Mail is clearly very different, Kartara saysshe will be importing many of the practices and processes that were employed atBHS to such good effect. Underpinning everything is a four-point renewal strategy. “And right atthe top of that is our determination to make the Royal Mail a great place towork,” says Kartara. Once you get the people issues right, she argues,bottom line considerations – such as creating efficiencies, and improvingcashflow and profitability – will follow automatically. In many ways, the Royal Mail’s situation is typical of a number oforganisations across the public and private sectors – albeit on a larger scale.Currently employing some 220,000 staff, of which some 10 per cent are classedas ethnic minorities, Kartara says: “We are fairly diverse already. Butthat diversity is concentrated in certain areas, such as London and parts ofthe North. I would like it to be reflected at all levels across theorganisation. The Royal Mail is one of the last great British institutions; wewant the best people – and they come from all walks of life.” Like every diversity expert, she too deplores the notion of quotas, arguingthat they are not only illegal, but also counter-productive. As Jon Whiteley, head of diversity at occupational psychologists PearnKandola, points out: “The very idea of quotas is negative and it hackspeople off. You have to make it clear that what you are after is anorganisation that is a meritocracy: that the best people for the job will beselected for a position. “Achieving diversity clearly involves targets, but the important thingis the activity underneath that – not the target itself.” Many organisations, he adds, find it politic to prevent even these”aspirational targets” from becoming common knowledge. The real challenge for Kartara, then, is to identify the kind of culturalbarriers that might be preventing wider groups from taking up jobs with theRoyal Mail – and to remove any impediments deterring those already employedfrom seeking and achieving promotion. The first step in the strategy is to audit how the organisation presentlyviews itself. “A model we used at BHS – a rolling monthly attitude survey– was a great way to take a temperature check on how people were feeling, andit turned out to be one of the most important documents in theorganisation.” Given the Royal Mail’s particular history, she has put forward a number ofquestions relating to harassment and bullying. Indeed, the ‘Dignity at Work’initiative she has pioneered gets straight down to brass tacks. “We’ve recognised that we have a culture of bullying in theorganisation – though I would make it clear this is only by a minority – andthis makes clear that we will not tolerate it. We want people to come to workand feel they’re being respected and valued.” To give the initiative teeth, she has introduced an independent helpline,whose advisers have been trained not just to listen, but to help peopleinitiate formal complaints where necessary. These are still early days for the Royal Mail’s Renewal Strategy. But in thebattle to establish greater diversity, one thing Kartara has on her side is thesenior managers’ committed ownership of the policy, from the chairman down. Sheplans to build on this by recruiting senior diversity champions at differentlevels in the business, such as board members, managing directors and area managers– to “promote, support and drive the strategy”. “You don’t achieve these things overnight,” Kartara says.”This is a long-term challenge, but I wouldn’t have taken the job if Ididn’t think it was possible. Diversity cannot just be a sideline; it must beat the heart of everything we do.” For all the challenges Kartara faces at the Royal Mail, she did at leasthave one thing on her side – introducing the diversity policy was as much anexercise in crisis management as anything else. But for many companiescurrently chugging along happily enough, the issue of diversity presentsdifferent problems. One of the main problems, says Susy Bobenreith, director oflearning and development at Nike EMEA, is simply defining what is actuallymeant by diversity, let alone the strategies needed to achieve it –particularly when you run an organisation that spans the continents of Europeand Africa. “One thing that was happening was that we were too much indebate-mode,” she says. “We couldn’t come to a place where we couldget any action – it was all too pie in the sky.” In the end the frustration boiled over. “We thought, ‘we’re Nike, weneed to just do it’. So we decided to focus on one thing to act as a catalyst.The issue we could all agree not to argue about was gender.” Overcoming bias Although the gender divide at Nike EMEA is currently 50:50, the companysuffers from the familiar problem that that ratio declines quite dramaticallythe further up the company ranks you go. “We took an audit of the people coming up through the organisation andmeasured men and women per function, per business group and per country,”says Bobenreith. The conclusion she came to, was: “Even if we promoted women at the samerate as men, we didn’t have a [middle management] bench to draw on.” In common with the Royal Mail, Bobenreith decided to tackle the problemobliquely, focusing on creating a culture that would attract and encourage morewomen, rather than going hell for leather for targets. This wasn’t just becauseshe feared a backlash from men; she was also getting pleas from women who didnot want their professional standing damaged by being tarred with the positivediscrimination brush. Clearly, it was a delicate balance to get right. Bobenreith began with measures to even out the playing field, such asintroducing more flexible working times and ensuring that women who left tohave children knew they would be welcomed on their return. Another key focus was transparency in recruitment and promotion. “Wewanted to get away from the belief that you get jobs because you know thepeople who hang around the water cooler.” This meant making managementdecisions transparent and creating a senior management profile, “so thateveryone could see what sort of skills and attributes were necessary”. She also made a point of training managers “to use specific techniquesto check their own biases”. The greatest enemy of diversity, she says, ishuman nature. “It comes naturally to hire people you like – to fall in love with oneparticular characteristic. We needed to teach managers to suspend firstimpressions – or at the very least, to be aware that we all have biases, and tobe able to catch yourself when you’re doing it.” She also made it clear to recruitment companies that Nike wanted to selectfrom a wider, more balanced pool. A year into the initiative, the results are already speaking for themselves.Out of 50 middle management positions up for grabs, 26 women were hired. The gender programme, Bobenreith says, is “just one spoke in thewheel” of making Nike a more diverse company, but its success will help tospearhead and encourage a wider strategy. “Essentially, we want to figure out a [strategic] roof for the companythat will sit over individual countries” – allowing them to tailor thedetail to suit their own particular situations. However, Nike has come a long way from the ‘jock guy’ culture that hastended to dominate at the company since 1971, when it was founded in Beaverton,Oregon, US. Back then, “people weren’t hired for skill sets, but for howfast they could run”. Even as little as five years ago, all generalmanagement positions in Europe were dominated by American men. “Now atleast we have Europeans running the show,” she says. The EMEA diversity programme tunes in with “a subconscious move tobecoming more globally diverse as an organisation” she says. “We’restill grappling with this – we haven’t cracked the nut yet.” But now, there is at least the satisfaction of having made a successfulstart. Katara, Bobenreith and Whiteley will all be speaking at the Pearn KandolaNew Directions in Diversity conference in Newbury on 11 March, being held inassociation with Personnel Today. For more details, visit Setting the agendaOn 4 Mar 2003 in Personnel Today Comments are closed. 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