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CSR and beyond: Time to integrate?

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The workplace is a critical battlefield for the government if they are to advance their goal of multiculturalism; Leo Martin and Ranica Barua of the GoodCorporation look at whether managing equal opportunities is no more than just a form filling exercise for employers.



Trevor Philips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality recently made a speech in which he suggested that multiculturalism stops when people leave work; this does not fit with the findings of the GoodCorporation’s recent work, however, into the management of different cultures at work.

The potential consequences of alienating individuals from ethnic minorities were highlighted spectacularly by the July bombings in London. This has led to much soul searching about the merits and failures of this movement.

While there is much debate on what the term means (or should mean) a popular website defines it as ‘the doctrine that several different cultures (rather than one national culture) can co-exist peacefully and equitably in a single country’. And to synthesize the agonising reflected in the popular press, multiculturalism is perceived to have failed to integrate communities, with the state’s desire for co-existence instead allowing these communities to live parallel lives.

In this article we explore whether the experience of establishing a multicultural society within the workplace is actually similar to what happens when people leave work. That is the UK workplace is more segregated than Trevor Philips’ views might suggest.

This is an important question because, to establish a society of different cultures that can co-exist peacefully and equitably, different communities must feel a sense of equal opportunity in employment.

Thus, the workplace is a critical battlefield for the government to advance its goal of multiculturalism. Towards this end, and to encourage equal opportunities, the Government has implemented both national and EU legislation to prevent discrimination at work.

But to a large extent following government regulations is an exercise in ‘ticking boxes’ for companies. It is therefore the norm rather than the exception that there is the usual equal opportunities statement during recruitment and in staff handbooks.

HR professionals in these organisations go to great lengths to ensure that the company complies with the law. It is therefore unsurprising that most companies we assess against the GoodCorporation Standard are able to show that, at least they understand this legislation and have taken steps to comply.

Yet, as Trevor Philips rightly points out, legislation is not always enough to ensure a truly integrated multicultural work force and this is borne out by our experience of assessing companies on the ground.

Consider for example the consequences of a narrow or unimaginative approach to the implementation. Two incidents stand out from our recent assessment work. An HR manager confided that despite the diversity statistics looking good on paper, the problem she faced was integration within the company.

Having significant numbers of the minority groups within the company meant that come lunch time or any social event, there was a tendency for like to choose like. And it was easily noticeable. As you walked around the common spaces you could smell the stir-fry, the curries and the salt and vinegar crisps, all sitting in discrete groups.

The other incident was during an employee interview just outside London, where a Sri Lankan once confided to us his preference of hiring non-whites to work under him. Explaining his reasons, he said: “White people are lazy. One sneeze and they will sit at home to recuperate.”

There is naturally a focus on white ethnic Britain’s reaching out to embrace people from other groups. But the challenge is actually for all of us to integrate and this requires effort from all sides.

As these examples highlight, it is definitely a challenge for people to integrate within the workforce. On the one hand it is easy to establish a tolerant atmosphere within the workplace (compared to home) because the focus is on shared responsibilities, professional knowledge and goals.

Yet the workplace also allows groups of people to operate without questioning or sharing perhaps more personal knowledge and interests, thereby becoming a space, which perpetuates the status quo.

But are the consequences of these ‘parallel’ groups benign – in that they are unfortunate, but of no great consequence to the company’s performance or can they be more malignant? As the Gate Gourmet example shows, they can also be malign; in the Gate Gourmet dispute, most of the workers involved were largely of South Asian (Punjabi) origin.

No doubt the organisation would have scored highly on implementing a diverse workforce. Where they would have failed is in effective integration. The disadvantage of not doing so is that the shared sense of ethnic identity that the workers felt, prevented them from developing a sense of loyalty to the company, and in fact enhanced their mutual solidarity during the dispute.

As one employee commented, “He (Hans Boesch) often used to compare us to the cheap labourers in India which used to anger us, as we may be Indian but we are citizens here and have lived, worked and paid taxes now for many years.”

As the above case highlights, there is a business case to be made against treating ethnic groups as ‘the other’. In fact, if different groups are integrated imaginatively, the benefits are not only felt in avoiding conflict, but there may also be opportunities to be had from it.

The tale from O2 illustrates the point. A suggestion put forward by a group of Indian workers through the employee feedback channel went onto become one of their most successful products – Bollywood ring tones.

Workplaces are potentially a powerful driver of change and integration. But companies that implement multiculturalism narrowly risk conflict. Yet there is a real opportunity, with tangible benefits, for companies to set an example – to go beyond the letter of the legislation and embrace the benefits of a truly integrated workforce.

Leo Martin is director and founder of GoodCorporation, the corporate responsibility standard and is the principal character in the BBC’s series, Good Company, Bad Company. Ranica Barua, co-author of the article is a lead assessor at the GoodCorporation.

Other articles in this series


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