Les Venus, Chief Executive of Threshold Initiative and board member of UK Council for Access and Equality offers his analysis of workplace diversity.

I don’t know about you but it seems to me that we seem obsessed by the need to track where our workforce originates – the need to see them as somehow separate, as defined by a set of legal characteristics. We need to know what gender they are, what sexual preferences they have what religion or belief etc …we expect potential and existing employees to fill in monitoring forms, truthfully of course, then store the information so that we can use it some time in the future to measure equality or track performance.

The question is does it work?

So why are we counting?

You often hear politicians and equality regulators say that they want people to feel British, that they have equal opportunities and equal chances in life. Yet they seem fixated about creating pigeon holes, dividing everyone by characteristics into categories defined by the latest Act as though that pigeon-hole automatically translates as to how we feel about ourselves. We have even devised sub-sets of Britishness. You can be Asian British, Irish British….but you can’t just be British…that is somehow an ideal that is reserved for ……exactly who? It raises concerns about whether the monitoring is there to support an existing perception and therefore shore up the case for the legislation having been passed or whether it is really about measuring equality.

And what about those perceptions? It is not just about legislation it is about what effect those pigeon-holes actually have on people’s perceptions. Do we run the risk of simply reinforcing a prejudice rather than countering it, seeing people as distinct groups rather than just people? A recent survey carried out by the Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School found that the some of the elite law firms in the UK turned down candidates who looked or sounded working-class in order to preserve the up-market brand, even when they were well qualified. Is that not discrimination caused by a perception?

Yet despite all this, counting does have a vital role to play. It is vital if you are to identify and track pay inequality and in more general terms it helps when you try to understand the make-up of your workforce and how you connect with the wider community. Counting also helps to assess if some of your practices are non-discriminatory or actually present barriers for certain groups. But there is a limit to what counting can do. After all it relies on everyone telling the truth and, even if they do, it doesn’t tell you anything about the individual or their experiences.

Guidance on what can be done with the collected data is also vague. Suggestions range from comparing it with regional data to see if your workforce reflects the local community or the industry sector to see how you compare against the industry norm, to tracking trends and planning positive action to address perceived imbalances. But simply using simple numbers as a way of estimating how you measure up to others doesn’t seem to me the best way of proving to yourself that you are performing at your best.


What’s the point?

When bean counting just becomes a normal function of what you do, and the results are unreliable or just not that relevant it runs the risk of becoming pointless. Is it not more sensible to view this simple monitoring as a stepping-stone, not as an end-goal in itself. Just like our understanding of equality and diversity changes over time, then perhaps the measures we use to monitor should evolve to reflect a more sophisticated use.

And that’s the point, that bean counting has become embedded in many organisations as the only measure. Any politician will tell you that when you debate a Bill the arguments are wide-ranging but once it has been passed as an Act that transition appears to curtail that freedom. The precepts become the accepted “norm” and the Act sets the basis and limits for any future debates and arguments. So while bean counting has a place in measuring equality we need to be aware we have the ability to think wider and not accept it as the only way.

And one of the main roles of any HR professional is to think wider and more deeply than that defined by legislation.

The role of the HR professional

All too often business takes a back seat – becomes the passenger – because, after all, it is simpler and far easier to play the role of the victim. Well playing the victim gets a little tiring.  Business, and that means HR professionals, need to engage with the regulator, to stimulate and take part in the debate not hide from it and certainly not to be led. Monitoring has a place and, if it has to have any meaning at all in helping achieve equality how we monitor needs to help counter perceptions, not imbed them. What we monitor also needs to be useful to business, to those in the protected groups, to the regulators and to measure success and help define equality, and not just bean count.

We need to define what equality means in more than just HR and recruitment, but in business terms – in how we operate, how we communicate, how we treat people and in the workplace environment.

It is not about benchmarking…how you do against a competitor or someone else in your field….but it should be about how you measure up against an ideal, something we are all striving to achieve. How you choose to achieve it differs from organisation to organisation, but the goal should be the same.

The future

Equality is personal. It is not about what I think you are, or which pigeon hole you slot into on my monitoring form, or even where you fit as some part of the legislative regime. It is about you as an individual. An individual with as many characteristics as I may care to define, but where those characteristics may not be the most important thing in your life, where pigeon-holes don’t define who you are or somehow determine your opportunities and chances in life.

The emphasis on monitoring by counting alone may simply risk sub-dividing people into groups, separating them, reinforcing the differences rather than bringing cohesion and equal chances and opportunities.

Now I know that we have moved on. Instead of 6 equality strands we now have 9 protected characteristics – and I also accept that monitoring has a role to play. There are unarguably inequalities and discrimination that persists and monitoring can certainly highlight the problems and provide an indication whether certain groups of people and represented throughout the structure of the organisation. But it is not about a bean count. That simplistic approach taken alone is outmoded just as the 6 strands that founded it. As equality issues move on so does the need for a different type monitoring. One that evolves, not with the legislation, but with business, the community and the regulator otherwise it may actually start to have a divisive effect. We seem to have lost focus, concentrating on theoretical differences and our ability to record these rather than on people and their experiences.

If we mean the monitoring is about achieving equality then ask people how they feel, whether they feel British or whether they have had the same opportunities and chances. If it is about measuring success in terms of business addressing equality issues, then let’s develop an ideal which we can all aim for and against which we can all be measured. But if it is about whether a piece of legislation has been effective in addressing a specific issue then by all means let’s bean count – but that is not necessarily equality.

My real worry is that business will duck this debate. That instead of leading it will shy away and that monitoring will remain essentially bean-counting. Am I just plain wrong …or do you share some of those concerns …. ?