In a nutshell

All employers have a legal responsibility to treat staff (and potential employees) in a non-discriminatory way but diversity and inclusion are about going beyond the legal requirements, by thinking about the many different ways that people can contribute to our business and making sure that they feel able to do so. Every person is unique and can potentially use their individual experiences to contribute to a business in a different way.

Having a diverse range of people, with different backgrounds and experiences – and allowing people to bring those backgrounds and experiences into work – makes good business sense, as well as being a positive ‘ethical’ thing to do. It can allow your organisation to develop and refine its products or services to different groups; work out the most effective way of marketing to different audiences; and make your business more attractive to potential candidates, giving you a better choice when recruiting. It can also help avoid “groupthink” and a culture where everyone accepts the way things are without challenge.

As one leading expert in the field put it: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Key steps to manage this issue

1. Make sure you understand the Equality Act

The 9 protected characteristics are:

  • Race/ethnic origin
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Religious or Philosophical Belief
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Gender reassignment
  • Pregnancy/Maternity
  • Marriage or Civil Partnership

Other than a very few specific legal exceptions, if you base a decision on one of these characteristics you are very likely to have illegally discriminated and could face a claim. For example, if you made a recruitment decision based on someone’s age (“he’s too young to manage that team”) then that would be discrimination.

Remember the Act doesn’t just protect ‘minorities’ – a Police force were found to have discriminated against a white male because they wanted to recruit more police officers from an ethnic minority background.

You also need to be mindful of what is known as indirect discrimination. This is where you don’t intend to discriminate but impose a condition (for example during recruitment) that disproportionately affects people with a protected characteristic. For example, an older lecturer successfully challenged a requirement to hold a PhD for a senior role in a university. He argued that in the past, fewer people in academia had studied for PhDs and therefore the requirement discriminated against older people – even if they met all the other criteria such as teaching experience, subject expertise etc.

2. Look at your workforce

Even if you don’t keep stats, you should still be able to get a view of how diverse your workforce is. For example, is it predominantly male? Do young people make up the bulk of it? How many people from a different racial or ethnic background work for you?

Then look at where you get your employees from. Does your workforce reflect this? For example, if you only have a small number of staff from an ethnic minority working for you, but you know that your town has a sizeable population from this background, ask yourself why. Is it something to do with the way you recruit? Do you get applicants but not many make it through?

3. Don't just focus on the 'protected characteristics'

There are other groups that can be excluded. For example, finance firms in the City of London have been criticised for focusing predominantly on Oxbridge graduates. This approach reinforces those who come from a public-school background to the exclusion of those (the vast majority) from the state sector. Similarly, issues such as accent, class or regional origin can be used to exclude certain individuals. You can try to reduce this by, for example, looking at a person’s grades rather than where they studied, or by focusing on the points they are making rather than they way they are saying something.

4. Look at what you can do - not what you can't

In smaller businesses, it can be the case that you read about something a large organisation is doing and think ‘we couldn’t possibly do that’ but there are plenty of practical things that every business can do relatively easily:

  • Where do you place your job adverts? If you only advertise in certain places you will only get applicants who use that source. To take an extreme example, if you placed all your adverts on the Mumsnet website it’s likely you would attract predominantly female applicants; in contrast if you advertised in GQ magazine, you’d get mostly white men. So, if your traditional sources are not yielding a diverse source of applicants it may be time to review them.
  • Think about how you word your adverts. One bus company saw a 15% increase in female applicants for bus drivers simply by focusing on the customer service and cash-handling side of the role rather than the driving aspect. The job hadn’t changed but the message had.
  • Think about how flexible working can assist. A different or reduced working pattern might help not only women returning from childcare, but also those who have to care for elderly parents, or those with health issues.
  • Make it clear that you won’t tolerate poor behaviour, even when it’s disguised as ‘banter’. Negative comments about, for example, someone’s race, religion or sexual orientation are unacceptable and you need to build a workplace culture that reflects that.
  • Learn about differences and manage around them. For example, if you have a number of Muslim staff, understanding the implications of the Ramadan fast and how you can manage that in the workplace can be very useful.
  • Look for talent throughout the workforce. If you have a reasonably diverse workforce, but your management team is predominantly white and male, ask yourself why. Are there people from different backgrounds who might have the skills and ability to move into more senior roles?
  • When you are looking at teams to work on a particular project, create as diverse a team as you can. They may well offer you a new perspective or idea that you’d never otherwise get.
  • Look at the messages on your website and other publicity. Is your website accessible to people with certain disabilities? Do pictures that illustrate your work show only male staff? Or only young ones?
  • Listen to your staff, ask questions and take advice. You can’t be an expert at everything. A member of staff with a disability is the person best placed to advise you on what sort of adjustments they might need. If someone tells you that they are about to start gender transition you need to ask them about the best ways you can support them. A young male manager will have no experience of what going through the menopause is like, so will need to seek advice. There are also plenty of charities and organisations that exist to provide support (see below) – don’t be afraid to ask.


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