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Lucie Mitchell

Sift Media

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

Read more about Lucie Mitchell

Diversity at B&Q: The people business


Retail chain B&Q is well known for its success in employing a diverse workforce. So what is its secret? Lucie Mitchell speaks to the organisation’s diversity advisor to find out.

Home improvement retailer B&Q is well known for its diversity policies. It has earned a reputation for employing older workers and has established over 300 partnerships with local disability groups around the country. In 2008, the organisation was one of only three retailers to be included in ‘The Times Top 50 Places Where Women Want To Work’, and it also made the 2009 ‘Top Employers for Working Families’ list.
All these achievements may be why B&Q’s diversity and engagement advisor, Leon Foster-Hill, is reluctant to call the company’s diversity programme an ‘initiative’, because, he says, it is something it has been doing for many years, with the first store opening in Southampton in 1969.
"We have been on the diversity journey for such a long time now – at the beginning, we opened two stores and both were staffed with over 50-year-old employees," he explains. "Over the years, diversity has just become part of everyday life – it sits at the heart of any activity we do as a business."
These activities include, for example, the company’s marketing initiatives, as well as training. "We have an apprenticeship and NVQ scheme and we don’t have any requirements for entry – we have one guy in our Oxford store who is 70 and has just completed an NVQ. We integrate our policies into everything we do," comments Foster-Hill.

Diverse benefits

For a large retail organisation such as B&Q, the underpinning requirement is for its staff profile to match its customer base, so having these diversity and equality policies in place can bring great benefits to the business.
"When you walk into a store you want to be served by people you can relate to and associate with," he explains. "For example, we have an area that is highly ethnic-minority based so we have to make sure our store reflects that, otherwise we are not going to appeal to the local community – that is the key business benefit, as it allows us to give a better service to our customers."
He adds: "It also means we get the best talent and the best people, because all we look for is individuals – we don’t miss out on huge great talent pools just because we don’t employ after a certain age."
There are benefits to the employees too, he says. "They get to mix with lots of different people that they might not normally mix with, for example, with the older and younger worker, they gain respect for each other and an understanding of different ways of life."
So how has B&Q fared throughout the recession? Has its diverse workforce helped the company to weather the storm? Absolutely, says Foster-Hill.
"It is due to the mix of people and the connection with the customers," he remarks. "In terms of our diversity programme, we have made a massive investment this year in training, which is our major people activity for this year, and we have made sure that this is open to everyone. We have got the apprenticeship scheme, the NVQ in retail and we have also got the home improvement knowledge qualification, which is a City & Guilds qualification."

The generation challenge

A quarter of B&Q’s 34,000-strong workforce is over 50-years-old, and a quarter is under 25. Whilst they are ahead of the game in being an attractive proposition for the older workforce, they do still face the challenge of Generation Y, with the younger age group coming into work, remarks Foster-Hill. "There is differing opinion of what they are looking for in the workplace, so the first area we really have to understand is what, if anything, we have to do and we will certainly look to address any challenge."
But it’s not just about age policies. Foster-Hill says it is important to promote the fact that the company has always been at the forefront in other areas too. "In terms of the Equality Bill that is coming in – and I have looked at it time and time again – there is nothing in there that requires us to do anything different, which really underlines the fact that we are trying to keep ahead."
Future initiatives also include developing its flexible working policies. "We are open seven days a week, so we have to have flexible people. There is a real opportunity to increase the level of uptake of those policies across the whole workforce, particularly up the grades."
Foster-Hill concludes that the company will continue to invest in its entire workforce, without excluding anyone. "I spend a lot of my time ensuring that in all the projects we have that are to do with our people, diversity runs through the heart of them. Our workforce is diverse and we continue to encourage more diversity. If you were to ask why, then I would say, ‘why not’? It is part of our DNA. It wouldn’t be B&Q if we suddenly stopped."
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Lucie Mitchell

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

Read more from Lucie Mitchell