Carole Brennan: Employees must grasp the opportunities diversity offers with both hands

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The Independent Online

It seems to be an invariable rule that, whatever the US does, the UK will follow before too long. So when prompted by anti-discrimination legislation American companies started to set up workplace diversity programmes, it was obviously only a matter of time before they started to appear here too.

Now organisations in such a wide range of sectors as investment banking, logistics, manufacturing and the public arena, can not only boast formal diversity initiatives, but even senior managers, who spend the whole of their time trying to ensure that these initiatives produce demonstrable results.

However, despite the resources currently being devoted to the idea of diversity, traditional British cynicism still rears its ugly head at the slightest opportunity. A recent survey by the recruitment firm, Hewitson Walker, suggests that as many as two-thirds of UK professionals think diversity programmes are little more than "glorified PR stunts", and less than a third believe that employers have a genuine commitment to creating a truly diverse workforce at all levels. But is this cynicism simply missing the point and are there really good commercial reasons for developing and maintaining a working environment that reflects the reality of the modern business world?

The first rule of business is to know your customer. Easy enough perhaps when your customer lives around the corner and looks and sounds just like you. Somewhat more difficult when they speak another language, come from a totally different cultural background and live on the other side of the world. For many organisations the key to this simultaneous challenge and opportunity has been in a workforce that mirrors the customer base and consequently understands its needs, aims and requirements. Take the example of motor manufacturer, Ford, here in the UK. Research had found out that one of the most lucrative potential markets for their small vans was small entrepreneurial companies, many of them owned by families originating on the Asian sub-continent. But how could a marketing department without direct experience of this demographic group go about addressing it effectively? Fortunately for Ford, a company that had been focused on the diversity issue for many years, a ready-made solution presented itself. The marketers set up a task force from the high proportion of Asian personnel already within the workforce and the resultant input helped sales to soar.

The business case for diversity also embraces much more than just the commercial imperative of mirroring a customer base. For enlightened and ambitious employers it means recognising that in the "war for talent", focusing recruitment and retention policies on a narrow group is shortsighted and self-defeating. Failing to create an environment where women, for example, do not feel excluded or marginalised simply leads to an unacceptable rate of attrition and is consequently a criminal waste of human resources. And expecting the brightest and best to come exclusively from a particular ethnic group or social class is as outdated as relying on Eton and Harrow as your only source of future senior management.

The conversations I have had with diversity specialists across a wide range of industries in recent years have convinced me that they are hard-nosed individuals who have little interest in "fluffy" PR - their motivations are based solely on good commercial judgement. But how do they get the message that this is a serious business out to the people who diversity initiatives most actively seek to develop - the best products of our schools, universities and business schools?

Many of the major players are trying to tackle this by getting out of their comfortable offices and to the campuses, with recruitment teams that reflect the range of people working within the organisation. Several leading investment banks participate in events such as Ethnic Minorities in Banking, which aims to show that their industry is not just one for white, middle-class men. And in September, a whole raft of major employers from GE to IBM will be taking part in our own Leadership Programme, which aims to help the next generation of business leaders fulfil their true potential.

In my opinion, employers are deadly serious about the benefits of a workplace where diversity is a reality. Now it's up to employees to grasp the opportunities this offers with both hands. If organisations are ready and willing to provide the training and support that will help individuals overcome barriers, why not take them up on it? Traditionally excluded groups may find that the doors they have been knocking on for so long are finally open.

Details of the Diversity in Leadership and Women in Leadership events in London from 21-22 September are available at www.qsforums.com

Carole Brennan is the director, QS Leadership Career Forums

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