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Colborn’s Corner: Diversity – it’s not down to HR

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Quentin Colborn

Trevor Philips, the chair of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which will take over the work of Britain’s three existing equality commissions in October 2007, has recently stated that responsibility for diversity should be taken away from HR. Quentin Colborn takes a look at what HR professionals should and shouldn’t be responsible for in this area.


Unfortunately I think on many occasions HR departments may become the repository for difficult issues that a business does not know how to handle – and this is not just people-related issues. Take the DDA for example; I have seen a number of cases where the HR team are expected to be aware of the obligations in terms of access to buildings – absolutely nothing to do specifically with HR, but we are stil expected to know the answers!

I think this is an area where the lines between knowledge and accountability become very blurred. Yes, it is very important that HR professionals can advise, inform and, on some occasions, warn their organisations about their legal obligations. They will often have to bail them out sometimes when things go wrong, but is it their role to make the changes that are needed within many, but not all, organisations?

I think it is a sad reflection on many businesses that mention of the word ‘diversity’ immediately brings to mind issues of race and/or colour. For many there is little concept that the topic can include gender disability and many other forms of potential discrimination and alienation. Therefore perhaps one role we have to fulfil is ensuring that there is a full knowledge of the concept of what diversity is all about.

But beyond a technical knowledge of diversity issues and providing education as to what diversity is, what should our role be? My view is that this is as much a corporate issue as quality is.

If you leave quality to be the preserve of the quality manager, quality is unlikely to pervade the organisation no matter how hard that manager tries. Similarly our role is to get diversity on the business agenda as a business issue offering both threats and opportunities, but we should not let ourselves be seen as ‘diversity champions’ for fear that the topic will be tarnished with the brush of being just another HR fad – and we have had too many of those in the past.

Where we need to concentrate our energies is laying the facts before the business leaders within our organisations, explaining the facts, outlining their responsibilities and then standing back. Of course we must be supportive and informative, after all we should have a lot to offer in those ways, but we shouldn’t do leaders’ jobs for them – if we do the likelihood is that we will all fail.

How is diversity handled within your organisation? Is the topic addressed at all? How many organisations address the topic as a business issue rather than as an HR ‘problem’? Let us have your views and experiences on this.

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or via [email protected]

One Response

  1. Top Level Commitment
    After 18 years in the field, Diversity is not just an HR issue. In fact if it is being driven from HR, it could be misunderstood and marginalised. Where there has been success in managing diversity is where there is sustained top level commitment in the organisation, with clear lines of accountability, allocated resources and a clearly articulated business case – including a Diversity Champion at Board level – not HR.

    For many people ‘diversity is still a new term – which they think is ‘Equal Opportunities’ by another name. Sometimes it seems that there is now an ever-increasing hierarchy of oppression, battling for their attention and scarce resources.

    For our clients, we present Diversity as a management issue and it is therefore one of the management competencies we expect to be annually assessed – taken seriously like any other required management competence. We provide awareness and knowledge and facilitate the discovery of the management solutions for themselves. They are the ones who have to discover and then articulate the business case. Only then will the staff be able to get on board – rather than play the ‘PC’ game.

    For one public sector client, a long-term education programme is in place – linked to organisational values, standards and clear outputs. There are seminars for all senior personnel – to update them on policy, procedures, and practices with a requirement for them to develop and deliver diversity objectives for their part of the organisation – links to real-time business outputs. There is also annual, blended learning made available to all personnel – a mandatory requirement which is taking into account for selection to recruitment panels, promotion and recorded in Personal Development Profiles.

    In the private sector, we have seen that when corporate leaders understand the added value of having a cross-culturally competent workforce in this changing global market, they are keen to have the best talent in their teams to exploit the business opportunities for market share, increased growth, productivity and profit.

    Managing diversity is not just an HR issue – it is an issue for all of us in our organisations. If we can remove the artificial, illegal, discriminatory barriers and maximise the potential of individuals – then we will create a productive and diverse workforce who can deliver our products and services to a diverse customer base.

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