Business leaders rise to the race challenge

The battle to end prejudice in the workplace is reaching a crucial phase, reports Kate Hilpern

The Leadership Challenge - an initiative that invites influential people at the top of companies and institutions to take a lead in promoting racial equality - is about to affect every employer and employee in the UK. This is the message from the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), which introduced the Challenge in June 1997.

The CRE's chairman, Sir Herman Ouseley, said: "It has raised awareness at the top level of organisations about the personal responsibility of leaders to take action themselves to achieve equality results. This will affect all other organisations if they see it working, bringing benefits they can identify with, and seeing this approach in their best interests."

During the first stages of the Leadership Challenge, the emphasis was on national organisations and major companies. But as the Challenge develops, invitations are being extended to organisations of all sizes.

Stephen Alambritis, of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: "The spirit and lessons of the Challenge are already reaching smaller businesses. This is a milestone in the fight against racial discrimination in the workplace. Most companies would like to see racial equality but they haven't had clear guidelines on how to achieve this. As a result of the Challenge, they will."

In recognition of this, the CRE is about to launch a good practice guide for small businesses.

The Challenge was born out of the notion that lasting equality of opportunity throughout society requires more than the enforcement of law. Sir Herman said: "It requires people with power, resources and influence to exercise personal responsibility for the action necessary to end discrimination and unfair treatment."

The results have been overwhelmingly successful. In the private sector alone, nearly 50 leaders of companies in such sectors as retail, finance, manufacturing and media have become signatories. What's more, leaders have been encouraged to use their positions to raise the profile of racial equality issues.

John Roberts, chief executive of the Post Office, for instance, has written an article in the business journal Management Today setting out the business case for building and promoting a diverse workforce. Robert Ayling, chief executive of British Airways, has been using a number of public forums, such as Radio 4 and a conference of all police chief constables, to express his personal position on diversity and his expectation that BA should lead the way.

Similarly, those organisations that aim to provide a lead across the whole sector have brought together key individuals in industry. In the retail sector, the John Lewis Partnership facilitated a meeting in January with the chairman of the CRE for members of the British Retail Consortium.

Other businesses have been focusing on teaching through example. A large number of organisations, for instance, had only basic equal opportunities policies, and leadership commitment has provided the stimulus necessary to translate policy into practical results. Some leaders have gone further still and introduced company-wide workshops to create inter-cultural understanding, while others have introduced celebrations of ethnic minority festivals.

Employers and employees across the country are also expected to learn from the specific strategies that signatory companies have identified.

Communication of an equality or diversity policy is, for example, an essential - yet often forgotten - means of setting out what (and why) action will be taken, and making clear the company's commitment to equality to all those who are affected by it - including employees, contractors, recruitment agencies and suppliers. TNT UK recently reviewed its equal opportunities policy and displayed a statement on notice boards. Likewise, since accepting the Leadership Challenge, Lloyds TSB's group executive, Peter Ellswood, has sent a video and leaflet to all 77,000 members of staff, outlining his personal commitment and reminding staff of the importance of achieving equality in all areas of the business.

Another effective strategy is training. Equal opportunities training at Granada is now supported by a CD-Rom, and at BT a cross-cultural awareness session has been developed for customer service engineers.

The recruitment industry has been affected the most by the Leadership Challenge. "Where we suspect employers and, indeed, individuals seeking jobs have a problem with race, culture or the ethnicity of others, we are now in a position to make clear our intolerance of such prejudices," said Catherine Johnstone of Catherine Johnstone Recruitment, which has taken up the Challenge. "This may not instantly encourage others to change their views, but we strongly believe that, with enough people making their views and policies clear, eventually these shallow prejudices will be eradicated."

In fact, internal recruitment has also been a key part of the Challenge. British Energy is one company that has improved graduate recruitment strategies. Careers with British Energy are now advertised through undergraduate publications likely to be read by people from ethnic minorities, and a new recruitment brochure, with more emphasis on equal opportunities, was produced.

"This wasn't a PR exercise," says Pia Sanyal, an employee. "Since I joined, everything they said has been substantiated."

Nationwide has introduced telephone interviewing. This means that a candidate's ethnic origin is not known until later in the process and also that the process focuses on innate talents rather than specific, relevant work experience, which may disadvantage sections of the community. Other strategies include monitoring the wording of question papers and checking markers for evidence of bias.

There is still much to do if racial discrimination is to be eliminated from the workplace. But the record of achievement by the Leadership Challenge so far shows that if it is taken up seriously across the whole of corporate Britain, the end of exclusion and disadvantage on grounds of race may finally be in sight.

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