Advice for Sir Paul: manage diversity

Museum-piece attitudes to human resources prevail in the Metropolitan Police and many other organisations, says Sheena Vernon
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The Independent Online
WHEN SIR Paul Condon, Chief of the Metropolitan Police, reluctantly admitted to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry that his officers were "not fully equipped to deal with the increasingly rich diversity of the city they police," he exposed the museum- piece human resource policies that prevail in the Met. These are policies which appear to be stuck in the equal opportunities mode.

They set statistical targets for diversity within the workforce, such as the percentage of females and blacks employed, but shy away from examining the cultural factors that make such targets hard to achieve.

Sir Paul, your force needs a Diversity Manager. But don't worry, because your's is not the first organisation to realise that the way it recruits staff, views customers, or deals with sticky, people issues at work, may not be the objective process top management like to think it is. In all likelihood it is shot through with prejudice and cultural props to the status quo.

Diversity policies take root where organisations realise that ghettos are not good for business as they by- pass talent, alienate customers, or force good people to leave because they can't stomach a culture which says "be one of us or go."

Take the armed forces, whose top brass have recently embarked on workshops, as part of an MOD-sponsored programme, in order to confront the obstacles causing a the number of suitable recruits to dwindle.

Or Mars Confectionery, whose senior managers across Europe, Russia included, meet this month to look at what diversity means in a European context and, among other things, to try to crack the glass ceiling that keeps women from reaching the top.

Or the Co-operative Bank (COB) which in its latest recruitment drive, for a new call centre, changed its qualifying criteria, so that the make up of personnel in this operation visibly differs from that of others in the bank.

"Banking has an image of employing white middle class males," says Mike Walters, Head of Human Resource Development at the COB. "What we want is for our staff to reflect the profile of our customers and of the surrounding community. We also want to be sure we are picking the best people, not people whose face fits."

Geraldine Bown of the Leicestershire based Domino consultancy, which is running the MOD's three year diversity initiative, puts the case for diversity more trenchantly: "Employing clones is not good for competitive advantage. If everyone in the organisation thinks the same, you won't get new ideas."

So, diversity is about setting out to enrich each organisation's cultural and intellectual pool. It is also about preparing people for the mix of cultures they will meet., willy nilly, as companies go global and expatriate assignments increase.

The starting point along this road is, invariably, to get people to explore how they react to human differences, not just in skin colour or sex, but in accents, habits, or styles of dress.

Diversity issues, emphasises Roy Davies of recruitment consultants SHL, don't just apply to organisations with an ethnic mix in their workforce; they involve everyone becoming adult enough to respect others as individuals.

"It's not a case of anything goes, but it's making sure people are judged by objective criteria, such as how they present themselves, or talk to customers, rather than subjective criteria like being fat."

Teresa Callaghan, Diversity Manager, Europe, for Mars, would agree with this. It took her company a long time, she admits, to reach a mature understanding of what diversity meant. You have to progress through stages, she believes.

The first stage, equal opportunities, means complying with legal requirements but little else. The second moves you to a more positive approach where diversity at all levels is seen to be an advantage. (For example, the most admired companies among the Fortune 500, according to the American Institute of Managing Diversity, are twice as likely to have women on their Board.) This leads eventually to a culture which articulates respect for the dignity of the individual. A natural development from this is a change in how people are managed, from controlling to more nurturing styles.

If this sounds very politically correct and self conscious, there's plenty of nitty gritty, say adherents, once philosophy translates into policy.

"When we recruited for our call centre," says Mike Walters of COB, "we looked at skills and competences rather than qualifications and experience. We felt there were people out there who didn't come forward because they had stereotypes of banking just as we did."

As an example, applicants were asked if they had ever had to handle conflict; having had to negotiate violence at home, say, might make them more fit to handle irate customers than a good degree.

At Mars a dignity at work philosophy led the company to offer women more choice in balancing commitments between work and home. A generous entitlement of six months maternity leave, at 90 per cent of salary, can be followed by a further sixth months of flexible working; staff, of both sexes, with a good track record, are entitled to request extended breaks, of up to three years, so they can look after children or aging parents without having to forgo their career.

In treating each woman's circumstances as individual, Mars has achieved an 87 per cent return rate among leavers (at the same cost to the company as taking on and retraining new recruits).

So for those who have not yet embarked on a deep clean of their value systems what are the lessons to be learned?

Implementing a diversity policy takes time, says Teresa Callaghan; take one step at a time and tailor your policy to the circumstances of each location, don't expect to import the approach of a US parent wholesale.

For Geraldine Bown of Domino, lesson one is to begin at the top and warn people that at first they may feel challenged: "We point out that being with 'your own kind' makes you feel safe, while being with those who are different makes you feel uncomfortable. Break down that barrier and people can work together more effectively."

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