Can HR really fix organisations’ diversity problems?
30 June 2020

Can HR really fix organisations’ diversity problems?

The growing strength of the Black Lives Matter movement has thrown the spotlight on instances of racism and a lack of inclusion at organisations around the world. For cultures to truly change, HR needs to overhaul organisational systems and structures that are compounding inequality at work


Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir worked as a content marketing writer at Ciphr from 2019 to 2021, specialising in topics related to HR systems, recruitment, payroll software, and learning and development.


Diversity and inclusion Leadership and management Learning and development


The growing strength of the Black Lives Matter movement has thrown the spotlight on instances of racism and a lack of inclusion at organisations around the world. For cultures to truly change, HR needs to overhaul organisational systems and structures that are compounding inequality at work

Instances of racism, harassment and discrimination have, for many workers who identify as part of a minority group, sadly been part of and parcel of working life for too long. But the growing global strength of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought a new impetus and urgency to the need to make workplaces truly inclusive, with high-profile actions – such as Reddit’s co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, resignation from the company’s board so a black candidate could take his seat – hitting the headlines with growing regularity in the early summer of 2020.

Most HR practitioners would agree there is a long way to go to tackle racism and inclusion both in workplaces and within the profession itself. Change is difficult, time-consuming and uncomfortable work, which is why it’s tempting to file away this challenge in the box marked ‘to be tackled later’. But as we move forward into an uncertain future at work – one that is set to be heavily influenced by the ongoing ramifications of the coronavirus, plus fundamental shifts in our definition of ‘work’ thanks to developments in technology – it’s a challenge that HR and senior leaders can overlook no longer.

It’s time for a new approach to improve workplace diversity and inclusion – one focused on changing the environment in order to “de-weaponise the cultures that we oversee,” argued John Amaechi, a former NBA basketball player turned organisational psychologist, at the CIPD Festival of Work 2020. “We need to stop looking at this as a deficit model – black people aren’t broken, women aren’t broken, people with disabilities and impairments aren’t broken. The environment they are in is toxic.”

So that’s the scale of the problem we’re facing – and how do we start making a positive change?

Why are these changes needed?

Despite the gap between male and female employment rates being the lowest it has been since 1971, FTSE 100 CEOs in 2018 were still more likely to be male than female. Earlier in 2020, data disclosed by the Parker review also found that 37% of FTSE 100 companies had no non-white board members, with FTSE 250 companies being even less diverse; around 69% had no directors of colour.

There are also seven million people of working age with a disability or long-term health condition in the UK, but only half of them are in work, and over 20% of LGBT people in the UK have experienced a negative or mixed reaction from others in the workplace due to being LGBT or being thought to be LGBT.

So it’s clear senior leaders and HR teams have a lot more work to do more to ensure their workplaces are inclusive environment. Writing for People Management magazine in June 2020, CIPD board member Yetunde Hofmann says it is no longer enough for organisations to appoint black and minority ethnic leaders into jobs responsible for diversity and inclusion, but that they must address their lack of diversity in other executive roles and take more action.

But what’s the business case for investing time and effort in this work? Portia Hickey – a chartered psychologist and co-author of the Smart Collaboration Accelerator – says “not only does diversity and inclusion mean better representation of the customer base, diversity of thought and better access to talent, but it also means better products for customers and increased revenue.

“Dr Heidi Gardner from Harvard University, for example, has shown that effective collaboration at senior levels of an organisation, which hinges on the incorporation of diverse expertise, increases revenue because it enables the organisation to solve highly complex and valuable problems.”

By changing systems and structures to improve diversity and inclusion, organisations are able to encourage greater innovation and creativity from a workforce comprised of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and skills. For HR, it means talent can be more easily hired and retained due to a sense of belonging. But how can an organisation actually change its systems and structures?

It all starts with hiring

“There are many examples of organisations that have invested hugely in recruitment drives to bring in more diversity, but, more often than not, what gets in the way of achieving a more diverse and inclusive workforce is unconscious bias and poor management,” says Hickey.

To tackle unconscious bias in recruitment, HR should try blind recruitment – this involves removing information from a candidate’s application that might influence your hiring decision, such as name and address, which can convey signals about a candidate’s ethnicity or socioeconomic background.

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) in hiring can also limit the human impact of unconscious bias but, cautions global diversity and inclusion leader Sheree Atcheson, “there must be checks in place before rolling out any automated process around recruitment to make sure this is challenged appropriately. Removing human error is good; however, it cannot be replaced by even more systemic automated error.”

HR can also draw in more diverse talent by thinking carefully about the language used in jobs ads.

LGBT activist Philip Baldwin says: “While most companies already have policies in place to show they are inclusive and supportive of everyone, the question remains whether that’s truly reflected in the company’s ethos.

“When it comes to recruitment, it’s helpful to emphasise a company’s commitment to equality and diversity in the job specification. But, for example, something that a company or an employer can do to be more inclusive of LGBT people is to advertise roles in LGBTQ publications.”

If individuals from BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) or LGBTQ backgrounds are not being hired, Mac Alonge – CEO of The Equal Group – says that HR has to get into the habit of challenging senior leadership to find out why only white candidates are being hired, adding that HR must be careful not to generalise the term ‘BAME’, which encompasses a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and traditions.

Alongside these changes to the recruitment process, HR should also consider changes to the job design. Offering more roles with flexible hours should encourage more applications from working parents and individuals with caring responsibilities (a quarter of working carers have considered quitting their jobs, according to June 2020 research by the CIPD), and you could also considering designing roles with certain types of applicants in mind; workers on the autistic spectrum, for example, may be more suited to roles requiring high attention to detail such as data entry.

Senior leaders need to change, too

June 2020 research by Business in the Community, a charity that promotes responsible business, found that black people hold just 1.5% of leadership positions across the public and private sector in the UK – a figure that has barely changed since 2014, when the proportion of black people in leadership positions was 1.4%.

While ensuring more diversity at the top end of an organisation is not easy work, Dana James-Edwards, corporate consultant and trainer, says “in order to get to the end result – which is more diversity at the top – senior leadership has to hold a mirror up to themselves and if they don’t like what they see, they have to acknowledge the steps they can take to make things better.

“As expected, there will be some discomfort along the way because change does feel uncomfortable but when educating senior leadership teams on diversity and inclusion, the aim is not to assign blame to anyone for the lack of diversity.”

Providing more opportunities for career progression is paramount to improving diversity at the top. Succession planning should give eligible individuals an equal opportunity for leadership positions, but employers are still likely to promote workers who are well-connected.

“Many opportunities for new projects unintentionally go to people who are in front of mind of the person making the decision. As a result, these career-making opportunities go to those who are most well-connected rather than most qualified or motivated,” says Hickey.

To help promote diversity at the top, James-Edwards recommends that HR professionals find themselves a “champion in the senior leadership team who can help you get the time you need to start making a change.”

She adds: “Even when there is a senior leadership team that is resistant to change, there is most likely someone on the team who is more willing to embrace the change than others – this person would then become the champion member you work with.”

To create a more inclusive workplace, Baldwin says senior leadership teams need to “become an ally for anyone who is LGBTQ in the organisation.

“If there is no one who is LGBTQ at the top of the hierarchy, then it’s important for senior leaders to educate themselves on a company’s public commitment to LGBTQ rights.” Employers can then take concrete steps to improve diversity and demonstrate allyship, such as by supporting a local LGBTQ charity or pride event, or establishing or sponsoring an LGBTQ interest group.

Pay transparency can make a real impact

The UK government hopes that gender pay gap reporting legislation – which applies to private and voluntary-sector organisations with a headcount of more than 250 employees, and most public-sector organisations of the same size – will encourage employers to close their gender pay gaps, but so far the results have been mixed. However, in June 2020, a petition calling for mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting for UK firms reached more than 100,000 signatures, proving the public appetite for greater transparency over pay disparities.

Speaking to People Management, Sandra Kerr, race director at Business in the Community, explained that “there is gross under-representation of black talent at top tables in the private and public sector and ethnicity pay gap reporting will ensure that this conversation remains an important issue for employers to action alongside their gender pay gap reporting.”

Employers who want to demonstrate their commitment to inclusion may wish to produce voluntary reports into their ethnicity pay gaps, and encourage more open discussions about pay more generally.

Reaching out to young, diverse talent is critical

Improving diversity in the workplace often isn’t possible without opening up more opportunities to students or young adults from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Offering work experience or paid internships to people from BAME backgrounds, or specifically to those who are LGBTQ or have a disability, will help employers uncover a vast amount of untapped talent.

Baldwin says: “The people who find it harder to begin their careers and find a pathway into the recruitment pipeline are the ones from minorities so it would be nice to see more companies going out of their way to offer work experience for young LGBTQ adults, for example.”

It’s vital that any such opportunities offer workers a real chance to earn experience and a fair wage. “Who can afford unpaid internships?” asks James-Edwards. “You need to pay for travel and food so unpaid internships really only benefit the people who can afford to live that way, excluding people from poorer backgrounds as a result.”

Your company culture needs to change

If your organisational culture is one where employees are scared to be themselves, afraid to speak out and one where employees and senior leadership are not educated on the importance of diversity, then it is time for a culture change.

Baldwin says that clear policies on discrimination can shape the culture and form a truly inclusive workplace for everyone. “It’s very well for a company to have a generic statement about LGBTQ equality somewhere within their policies, but the language within these policies has to be specifically geared towards LGBTQ discrimination, for example. So, if discrimination or harassment occurs, it provides a clear framework for LGBTQ employees to make a complaint and take action.”

Providing D&I training throughout every level of an organisation, and “not just to a human resources team” is also crucial for changing the culture, Baldwin points out.

However, James-Edwards says: “We have to step away from this thinking that learning about diversity and inclusion has to be a formal training course or an e-learning course. Sometimes the learning comes from interaction on the job, sometimes it comes from being able to have discussions with colleagues who you respect internally, and more discussion needs to happen internally to help promote some of this learning.” These discussions can occur in special interest groups or support networks, which can be crucial in helping employers act on equality issues in the workplace.

Ultimately, if you’re striving to build a truly diverse and inclusive workplace, the changes to systems and structures have to be based on sharing and listing to others’ experiences. “Active listening and understanding of underrepresented groups can truly aid an authentic change,” says Atcheson.

James-Edwards adds: “If you have a really toxic culture where people are afraid to share, then there’s more work to do than just deploying learning because, at that point, learning will just be a sticking plaster.

“What needs to be done to change the culture and to improve D&I is different for each organisation. Every organisation needs to be willing to put in the effort to find out what their starting point is and focus on what they are going to tackle first because change doesn’t happen overnight.”