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Annie Hayes

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Shaken not stirred: Should HR battle for ‘diversity’ rights?

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Should diversity be shown the 'way out' of HR?
Trevor Phillips, chair of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR), stirred up considerable HR emotion when he announced that diversity should be taken away from the function. Annie Hayes talks to HR professionals to find out whether his comments were justified.


One organisation that has expressed a considerable degree of apprehension about diversity being taken away from HR is the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Freda Line, diversity adviser at the CIPD, says that whilst the institute whole-heartedly supports the CEHR’s comments regarding the need for senior level buy in, they stand resolutely concerned that overall responsibility is taken away from HR.

“To deliver diversity you need a more strategic and holistic approach and to do this you need to have senior level buy in at board level,” she remarks.

“The CEHR is pushing this and we agree with that but the question is over who takes this action forward. It doesn’t just happen. It’s logical that it is through the HR team because diversity is about people. Clearly you need top level buy-in but it can’t just be top down. We’d be extremely concerned if responsibility for diversity is moved away from HR – we just don’t see how it can be delivered. Many heads of HR are also responsible for communication so what happens if they are no longer in charge of diversity?”

“We’d be extremely concerned if responsibility for diversity is moved away from HR – we just don’t see how it can be delivered.”

Freda Line, diversity adviser, CIPD

HR consultant Iain Young goes further and says that what concerns him greatly is that separating HR from diversity will do great damage in isolating the issue from the majority of the workforce. “People are an HR issue and diversity is about people so it is in the right place. I am not saying we in HR are always getting it right, but putting it in a position where it is liable to further isolate a majority of people is not the way forward either.”

HR Zone member Juliet LeFevre agrees with Young, saying that HR’s skills in managing behaviours make it a good fit for dealing with diversity issues: “I think it should be part of HR and not separate. HR deals with human issues and has tendancies towards behaviours; as such it fits in there.”

Yet for many working in the HR field, the argument isn’t as black and white as some would like us to believe; there is a large majority who believe diversity is an issue that has an organisation-wide responsibility.

The ‘buck’ goes further

Satya Kartara is founder and managing director of Be Inclusive, a consultancy that specialises in diversity for organisations. Kartara has led some of the most challenging and successful change programmes in the UK with roles including director of diversity and inclusion at the Royal Mail and head of diversity for Ford Motor company. She says that the sentiments of equality tsar Phillips are neither new nor shocking:

“I’ve been saying it for a long time. Diversity has to be dealt with at the heart of the business. It should be every department’s responsibility. What happens currently is that HR is left to deliver on diversity as and when it can. It becomes a ‘nice to do’.”

“Diversity has to be dealt with at the heart of the business. It should be every department’s responsibility. What happens currently is that HR is left to deliver on diversity as and when it can. It becomes a ‘nice to do’.”

Satya Kartara, founder of Be Inclusive

Rather then being a responsibility that falls neatly into a box, says Kartara, diversity is an issue that is all pervading and that every member of the workforce must address. She does agree, however, with Line to some extent, saying that the only way to get change is to get buy-in from the top:

“When I was at Royal Mail the goal was to make it a ‘great place to work’. At the front end of the business 90 per cent of the workforce was diverse but it was at the top end that change needed to happen. Before I left, we’d made huge progress on that front. We set up a diversity champions’ group – which chief executive Adam Crozier sat on, along with the director of HR. We agreed that any decisions that were made were to be treated as board decisions so they would ‘happen’.”

Where Line and Kartara differ is over the consequences of removing the responsibility for action from HR. Kartara believes that there shouldn’t be implications – an argument that Line cannot accept. Of course there is a middle path.

Linda Linehan, managing director of Abbeville Associates Ltd, says that HR has a role to play even if it isn’t the leading part.

“All organisations, public, private or not for profit, have a responsibility to ensure fair treatment and equal access to services, and most importantly, outcomes which show equity in terms of who actually benefits from what is on offer,” she comments.

“To do this, however, requires corporate policies and practices which identify, support and reward leadership behaviours which embrace diversity, reject discrimination and promote equality of opportunity. Surely, HR has a key role to play here? Or am I missing something?”

HR consultant Quentin Colborn is less concerned with protecting ownership, pointing to outcomes as the important factor: “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.”

“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.”

Quentin Colborn, HR consultant

And that really is the point. Like a sleepy worker happy to plod along with the same old routine, who is sharply reminded that a contract can be broken, Phillips should be saluted in waking up the HR function to the fact that nothing is certain when it comes to responsibility and the handing out of powers. The debate that continues is relevant and timely – with a population explosion warning underway, the mix and diversity of our workers has never been more of a hot topic.

Whichever side of the fence you sit, it is universally agreed by the HR fraternity that decisions about diversity in the workforce are only valid if they have buy-in from the top. Whether HR holds onto the reins of power will remain to be seen; what is certain, though, is that diversity won’t go away. As Line says, diversity is not an issue that is ever finished or ever stops, and that really is the only truth.

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Annie Hayes

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