Should diversity still be part of the HR function?
By Jo Faragher on 9 December 2019
At the annual conference of UK HR body the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, one of the hottest topics of discussion was why HR was often asked to ‘fix’ so many things that are wrong with the wider culture. The debate focused on whether these concerns – often around diversity and inclusion – should just live in one department or whether they should be more integral to the business as a whole.
Because of its inherent focus on people, it’s natural that diversity has its roots in the HR function, but as it has grown in visibility and importance, is this still the most appropriate place? Jacqui Gavin, diversity and inclusion adviser at Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service, sums up this evolution: “I think the only reason that many organisations place D&I in HR is because of the role that HR covers in supporting people across all of the business. Whilst I fully understand why business does place it here, my personal view is that I would rather it sat separately.” This means the function has more freedom to challenge people across the business and be a “critical friend”, she adds.
Indeed, as organisations realise that striving for diversity alone can be a numbers game, and that an inclusive culture could reap more benefits, the argument for seating D&I outside of HR intensifies. But from a structural perspective, it can have more power from within the people function, argues Claire Godding, senior D&I expert at Febelfin. “If you want to impact HR processes like recruitment, promotions or even leadership programs, make changes in those processes or control figures, then you will need to work from inside HR or as direct report to the CEO,” she says. This way they can weave it into people processes such as performance management and reward, she adds: “Diversity is mainly a business issue, so business managers should have a D&I objective linked to their bonus. At all levels.”
It’s well known that D&I has a more powerful impact where it is sponsored at senior level, particularly where it’s espoused by the chief executive. But there may be unintentional consequences of placing it too high in the corporate hierarchy. Geraldine Gallacher, founder of Executive Coaching Consultancy (ECC), says that if D&I reports into the board it can have more impact, but does then “run the risk of being too separate and does not figure enough in HR policy”. Gavin agrees, pointing out that the perceived seniority of D&I professionals in an organisation can have subtle differences on its impact: “Because D&I is much more of a strategic element it is the umbrella that ensures that the business creates a culture that allows for us all to thrive regardless of who we are or what grade we are we should place it at the very centre,” she adds. “If we place it too near the top, junior grades might feel for them to succeed it means they have to be in the top grades. If we place it too near the bottom the senior grades will not take it serious enough and it becomes a lip service product.”
Susie Beaumont, General Counsel (UAE) and Global Lead for Diversity & Inclusion at the OLX Group (a global online marketplace operating in 30+ countries), says that D&I at the OLX Group has its own structure outside of HR and great efforts have been made to ensure employees from across different levels, countries and parts of the business are involved with it. There are five global work streams that are led by HR, but made up of people from around the business. “The main function of the work streams is to consider and propose D&I initiatives, goals and metrics to the D&I Council, that can be rolled out globally,” she explains. In addition, there are 25 local/regional D&I Committees around the world, most of which are led by people outside the HR function. The local/regional D&I Committees customize global initiatives to local conditions and develop market specific initiatives, goals and metrics.
Barry Boffy, diversity and inclusion manager at the British Transport Police, believes that this more dispersed arrangement can be one of the most effective as D&I does not end up being strangled by what the rest of the business expects of HR. “The D&I professional, in my opinion, should remain independent to internal HR functions and processes to allow such challenge,” he says. “There’s a natural dotted line between the two, but there shouldn’t be direct line management or chain of command. Too often I’ve seen working environments where if HR challenges or won’t do what’s expected, their position becomes untenable with relations breaking down between ‘the business’ and HR.”
Lynda Thwaite, head of marketing and communications at construction company Sir Robert McAlpine, believes it’s possible for D&I to be both driven from the top and run through the business. “It can be driven tactically from numerous departments – our CEO is driving inclusion while our executive board leader is changing how inclusion is considered throughout the entire business. You either want it and are willing to go all out to get it, or you are merely paying lip service,” she says.
Regardless of where D&I sits in your organisation currently, there is clearly a demand for it to be more embedded across functions if it is to have greater impact. But if diversity is becoming business as usual anyway, do reporting lines really matter?
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