In search of talent from all communities

British companies are embracing strategies to ensure their workforces better reflect modern Britain
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The Independent Online

Sectors that were once the preserve of white middle-class men now put a lot of time into attracting a diverse pool of applicants to their graduate jobs. Of course, as with anything in business, the main driver for recruiting from as diverse a group as possible is profitability and there is a clear business case in having people from ethnic minorities working for you.

“It’s important that our workforce complements our customers,” says Mike Fairey, deputy group chief executive at LloydsTSB. “Banking is a people business and we rely on the skills of our people to build our business as we don’t actually make anything, so it’s crucially important that we employ the best people possible and we would be silly not to embrace the entire community when recruiting.

“Of course, we also want to be seen as a fair and diverse employer and this is a programme we’ve really paid a lot of attention to over the last six to eight years. We used to be quite male orientated and white dominated, and in the late Nineties the percentage of ethnic minorities in our workforce was less than 2 per cent.” That figure has now risen to 5-6 per cent, he says. “It might not sound much but is a big increase in terms of the number of people and there’s an increase of nearly 250 per cent in managerial positions.”

To achieve this the company does a whole host of things. “One of the first things we did internally was create an ethnic minority network to give ethnic minority employees the opportunity to learn from one another, with the objective of helping to enhance their careers. The network hosts a number of events across the country and is very active in terms of helping to develop our ethnic minority workforce. We are also very focused on graduate recruitment – we want quality graduates, so it’s important that we choose from the best possible talent pool. Now over 25 per cent of our graduate intake comes from ethnic minorities.

Elizabeth Solaru is a senior consultant at GatenbySanderson, a recruitment consultant that works largely in the public and not-for-profit sectors. “It has been recognised that BMEs are not coming through on the fast-track programme and one way they are trying to counter this is to set up traineeships in individual government departments for people from under-represented groups,” she says.

One of the problems, says Solaru, is that students from ethnic minorities do not always know what opportunities there are at university for them to access careers information. They may be the first generation from their family to go to university in the UK, and may not have people in the family to discuss such things with.

“Other people may have spent a long time talking to friends and family who work in different professions and who understand the need to seek out these opportunities,” says Solaru.

Shahana Mirza, a section head for Foster Wheeler Energy Ltd, an international engineering procurement and construction contractor, agrees that students and graduates need to be better informed about the opportunities there are and how to find out information. She is involved with both Women Into Science and Engineering (WISE) and the Science Engineering and Technology (SET) ambassadors scheme, which encourages people from the workplace to go into schools to act as role models for children. “I’m an engineer,” she begins. “Young Asian fe

males will often go into professions such as dentistry or medicine, but not into engineering. I think we as a society need to look at the traditional values held by various groups and really challenge those. Certainly, with engineering there’s always been a perception of wearing greasy overalls or carrying a spanner. My own experience is that engineers are in professional jobs working in a high-tech industry with the opportunity to travel around the world while being very well paid. We need to dispel the myths.”

Dispelling myths is something Saad Saraf knows about. A British Arab originally from Iraq, he is the CEO of Mediareach, a multicultural advertising agency that specialises in devising and planning campaigns to target diverse communities in the UK. “We have produced recruitment campaigns for clients including the Army, the British Heart Foundation and Hovis and we generate a lot of responses. It used to be that all adverts looked the same. It was always just a group of people with one or two people from ethnic minorities. That’s not a strong enough position. People need to see that an organisation is encouraging and welcoming.”

Saraf’s approach is to have two-pronged campaigns communicating to both the potential employee and to the people around them. “When someone goes home and says I am going to apply for this job or that career there needs to be a favourable response from their family and the decision makers and gatekeepers. In many communities, what to do is a joint decision making process between the candidate and their family and extended family.”

This is perhaps his main advice to companies hoping to recruit more ethnic minorities, and to graduates wanting to apply for jobs in a specific area: “Make sure you communicate with the influencers and gatekeepers and attempt to make them feel welcome.”

Networks and mentoring programmes are key to recruiting people from ethnic minorities, says Anita Tovell, human resources director for Simmons & Simmons, an international law firm that was the first firm to win the Commission for Racial Equality and The Law Society’s award for racial equality for a law firm with more than 25 partners.

“We work closely with the Black Solicitors Network and we run a lot of mentoring programmes with schools. I mentored two girls in Tower Hamlets in London and through that I was introduced to a young man who came to us as a paralegal, got experience, was our first trainee solicitor from Tower Hamlets and is now a qualified lawyer with us. Once you introduce people from a community into your firm the word spreads and other people follow.”

Ismail Amla, UK & Ireland human capital and diversity lead at Accenture agrees that spreading the word to schools and communities is key to encouraging a diverse workforce. He was involved in developing and shaping the Mayor of London’s Black History Scholar Programme. “The programme is exemplary in encouraging children to aim higher, and enabled us to demonstrate Accenture’s ongoing commitment to learning and education, corporate citizenship and diversity,” he says.

But it is not just schools that companies need to focus on says LloydsTSB’s Fairey. “We sponsor a number of events like the Asian Achievement awards. This is not just altruisitic but also to help demonstrate to our staff what a diverse organisation we are, as we believe that you are more likely to build your business by employing a diverse group than would otherwise be the case.”

'Companies today are increasingly global and they need to reflect this'

Altaf Alim, 25, graduated with a BSc in business and management from Brunel University. His sandwich course included a year in business which he spent working for UPS. He has just finished a two-year graduate scheme for BT. Alim is a Muslim.

“I applied to BT as any normal graduate would. There’s an online application and a standard process with tests and interviews. From looking at their website, I could tell that it was a company that respected and valued diversity from the employee profiles. But it wasn’t until I actually joined the company that I truly understood and appreciated how diverse an employer they were.

Early on I joined the Muslim network which helped me to manage my faith in the workplace. BT has nearly 100,000 employees, so it was good |for me to find people I could talk to and help settle into |the company.

In terms of what the company is doing to encourage applicants from ethnic minorities you can think of it as viral marketing. I’ve had a good experience so I will tell people about it. I’ve got involved in the community to try to promote the BT brand which I wouldn’t have done if I didn’t think the company meant it. There’s also a “refer a friend” initiative which is really powerful because it’s tapping in to your own networks.

I’ve now been approached by the Muslim Council of Britain for a role models project where you go into schools and talk to pupils. My advice is not to have any barriers in your mind. Companies today are increasingly global and they need to reflect this. |Don’t be afraid and don’t be pessimistic, but think ‘what can I offer and what can |diversity bring?’”

'The only barriers I worried about were my grades'

Syeda Zaidi is a 26-year-old British Pakistani woman. She is coming to the end of her two years as a graduate trainee on the Wholesale and International Banking Scheme at LloydsTSB.

“I studied computer sciences with business studies at the University of Birmingham and went on to do an MSc in investment at the same university.

I think it's very important to recruit from across different minorities. You work most of your life and spend the bulk of your time at work, so your colleagues are an integral part of your life. It’s nice to have people from your own culture and from different cultures because it creates a better vibe and makes things more interesting.

I do remember looking at company websites when I was looking for a job and looking at the profiles of their employees. I felt that I wanted to see women and some ethnic minorities. When you see that you think that you can do it as well and it’s a comfort. I was also looking at interview to see whether there were any ethnic minorities and women in the department and I always asked what the team was like, what the male to female ratio was.

There are also career events for ethnic minorities. |At the end of the day getting into a good company is about talent and ability so it wasn’t the focus of my search – the only barriers I worried about were not having good enough grades or extra curricular activities – but it is something you are aware of. My workplace has an ethnic minority support group and a women’s network though I’ve made more use of the women’s network than the ethnic minority one. I’ve heard from women who have got into senior roles and who can give you advice and tell you their stories.”