Graduate+: Time runs out for business to switch to colour

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Companies are still reluctant to call on the pool of talent among ethnic minorities.

Callum Forest reports on

a doomed strategy.

Few would suggest that the white men who run Britain's corporations are social reformers. They generally prefer less government to more, and are rarely critical of the social structure that put them in power. However, the UK's changing demographics are encouraging some to re-examine the world they live in.

The number of those from the ethnic minorities living in the UK is predicted to double over the next 25 years, to more than 10 per cent of the population. This growth will be fuelled not by immigration, but by the fact that nearly half of those in the ethnic communities are under 25 and are yet to raise a family.

Several of the UK's leading corporations are beginning to recognise the need to assemble a diverse staff team, and have sought to devise hiring strategies that reach out and attract qualified ethnic minority candidates. This evolution in thinking is brought about not by a moral compulsion to redress the inequalities of the past, but rather by enlightened self- interest.

From an economic perspective, organisations realise that they must establish credibility and expertise to access increasingly diverse consumer markets.

In the United States, the economic benefits of diversity have long been recognised. For example, the cosmetic giant Avon Products significantly increased its ability to sell to the the large Korean communities of Los Angeles by making sure that it hired qualified staff from those communities. Syntel, the US software services company, moved into the European market last July and selected the UK as its base precisely because of its multicultural composition. Ricky Shankar, Syntel's UK Country Manager, confirms that "because Syntel's clients, which include AIG, Chrysler and Ford, serve diverse consumer groups around the globe, it is critical that we continue to attract internationally mobile, multicultural talent ... The UK is well placed to supply such a work-force".

The Littlewoods Organisation also puts diversity at the centre of its business strategy, with managers up and down the corporate hierarchy acknowledging the benefits of hiring staff with the language and cultural capabilities necessary to serve diverse communities.

Jim Michie, the group's finance director and acting director of human resources, highlights the organisation's conviction by stating that "the employment of a diverse workforce reflecting a multi-ethnic modern society helps to broaden our customer base. As a result we see benefits not just for our customers, but also for our employees and other stakeholders."

However, despite some good intentions, corporate Britain has not to date been successful in bringing diversity to its management teams. Positive initiatives such as Business in the Communities' Race for Opportunity campaign, and the encouraging noises made by some of the UK's most senior executives, have so far had limited impact upon the racial composition of corporate management. Many organisations still seem to be implying that commercial talent is monopolised by white, middle-class males, and in so doing may be decreasing their capacity to exploit their domestic consumer base and damaging their ability to compete on the world stage. For example, the US component manufacturer Allied Signal won a $20m-$30m contract with China Eastern Airlines. Its negotiating team were Chinese- Americans fluent in both language and technology, and they secured the deal in front of a French-led joint venture.

If the economic benefits of diversity are becoming clearer, the route to attaining it is less so, with many obstacles blocking the way on both the supply and demand side, and indeed in the management of ethnic minority staff once they are on board.

Recruitment strategies that account for diversity often have to bridge a gap between reality and the perception of reality. Specifically, whilst some organisations may have developed a real appetite to appoint the best candidates regardless of gender or race, they are not always perceived by potential ethnic minority candidates to be operating a meritocratic recruitment or retention programme.

This assessment is strengthened by the fact that, although minority communities currently comprise only 5.5 per cent of the UK's population, 11 per cent of its undergraduates come from minority backgrounds.

This disproportionate academic achievement has not yet been capitalised upon by corporate human resources divisions which often seem passive about equality of opportunity and content to state that ethnic minority candidates apply to their organisation and so it has not been possible to alter the racial composition of its staff. This view is frequently voiced without always seeking to find out why it may be the case, or indeed what can be done about it.

On the supply side, some would argue that many individuals from minority backgrounds have been denied the opportunity to develop their careers to a point where they can offer the skills and experience sought by corporations, certainly for more senior posts. The argument insists that there are wider societal issues at work, for which corporations cannot and should not take responsibility. Although there is certainly some truth in this, it is important that the view does not go unchallenged. There are frequently high-calibre candidates from minority backgrounds who may not respond to job advertisements, and are not approached by mainstream headhunters whose view is traditionally myopic.

Even when an ethnic minority candidate is hired, the informal mentoring that exists for white employees is frequently not available to them; this may be harmful to skill acquisition and in turn, promotion. Furthermore, many companies seem reluctant to place such employees in the jobs they need in order to advance. It is white managers who are usually given the opportunity to experiment with new and risky projects.

If UK corporations are to compete effectively in the global market-place, then it would seem imperative that they harness more of the resources that exist on their own doorstep. This may require a degree of investment and sensitivity, but this will be returned with interest as organisations develop the credibility and expertise to access increasingly diverse consumer markets in the years ahead.