Smart moves: Bosses take steps to cut bias

Helen Jones finds some employers bet on equality as the sure way to recruit fresh talent
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The Independent Online
For years the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been associated with the sort of old-school-tie, upper-class chaps who can keep their cool in a crisis, sort out the odd attempted military coup and mix a strong Martini.

Unsurprisingly, it is keen to change its image and has put measures in place to attract recruits from more diverse backgrounds.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, says that he aims to en-courage people from ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and people from the broadest possible backgrounds to join the FCO. "It is essential that staff should reflect the diversity of people of the United Kingdom whom they represent. Those whom I have in mind will also bring to the FCO a new and rich source of ideas and talent to help shape the future foreign policy of a modern Britain."

Since Mr Cook took up his role, the FCO has held open days for community and religious leaders, representatives from the new universities and children from comprehensive schools. It has also appointed an "ethnic liaison" officer who promotes job opportunities within the FCO.

Madeleine Campbell, head of equal opportunities at the FCO, says that there has been an encouraging response. "In terms of the applications and the people we take on, the numbers from the disabled and those from ethnic minorities are rising and we see it as a positive trend."

One of the problems for those with disabilities is that the FCO's own offices are fairly inaccessible. "Our main London location in a historic building imposes considerable restraints but we are trying to come up with imaginative solutions," Mr Cook says.

Meanwhile, some firms in the City are also attempting to improve opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds. One black graduate who works in the City says, "There is plenty of institutionalised racism in financial institutions - you certainly don't see many black people around. Mind you, I'm not certain how many actually think of applying."

To counter this, the Afro-Caribbean Finance Forum is attempting to encourage more young blacks to consider a career in finance. Members act as mentors and provide advice and guidance. Last year it helped to organise a recruitment fair and attracted sponsors including JP Morgan and HSBC.

"We have found it difficult to attract young black people who may perceive banking as white, male and middle class," said a spokesman for HSBC. "We want to raise our profile as a good place to work."

The Institute of Personnel Development is issuing guidelines on how companies can create better equal opportunities policies. "Managing diversity is based on the concept that people should be valued as individuals for reasons related to business issues as well as for moral and social reasons," says Dianah Worman, a policy adviser at the IPD. "It recognises that people from different backgrounds can bring fresh ideas and perceptions which make the way work is done more efficient and products and services better."

One of the case studies produced by the IPD to illustrate its point is the Inland Revenue, which has traditionally been the Government department with the lowest representation of women and members of ethnic minorities at senior level.

"Equal opportunities is the prime example of moral and business imperatives coming together," says chairman Nick Montague. Inland Revenue has now adopted a number of measures, including opportunities for mentoring, shadowing and participating in focus groups, and has introduced a new system for recruiting clerical staff.

Since the programme was introduced, Mr Montague says that the percentage of women and ethnic minorities has increased in the senior grades and some goals have been revised upwards.

Sainsbury has also started to change its approach to equal opportunities. Ms Worman of the IPD says, "until recently Sainsbury's approach to promoting equality was based on a similar formula to those adopted by other large UK companies. Firstly, the company ensured compliance with legislation, followed by positive actions initiatives targeted in the main at women and people with disabilities."

However, a survey of staff in 1996 found that only 54 per cent of them believed the statement, "everyone at Sainsbury is treated fairly whatever their race, sex, age or disability". Sainsbury knew that it had to do something about it and fast. It is now working to increase awareness of equality among key managers and has introduced a fair treatment policy to address staff complaints. A follow-up survey during 1998 found that 65 per cent of staff believed that everyone was being treated equally.

Ms Worman admits that the successful management of a diverse workforce is not always easy. " It cannot be achieved overnight. It requires continuous effort, top level commitment and the engagement of the workforce itself." However, companies which are prepared to commit themselves fully to equal opportunities for all will reap rewards. These include "enhanced recruitment and retention and added value from employee contribution and improved productivity," she says.