How can employers increase diversity in the workplace?

The fact that individuals from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds are less likely to be in work, and when in work, are less likely to be fulfilling their potential is wrong and must change.”

This is a powerful statement with which few would disagree. It is also consistent with other disadvantaged groups who, despite having protection against less favourable treatment, still find themselves facing more barriers than those with more privileged characteristics. 

It comes from the government in response to an independent review into issues affecting BME groups in the workplace. The tone of the response suggests commitment, determination and a call to action. We are, however, three years on from that review, carried out by Baroness McGregor-Smith in 2017 (the McGregor-Smith Review) and there have been remarkably few changes to the landscape.  

What is being done by government? 

Behind those strong words were a series of weak commitments. There was no green light to legislate on the mandatory publication of ethnicity data at work, simply the rather more passive proposition to work with businesses and support them to bring about change. 

There are organisations who have done a remarkable job in pressing the government to implement change, but progress, if allowed to develop without any real traction, is slow going. In the absence of government intervention, the emphasis is on businesses to make the difference that is needed.  


The barriers do not start in the workplace or even at entry level, but often appear with access to education, geographical location, community or family expectations and a lack of support networks. A person’s prospects can be shaped by cultural and social opportunities years before they enter the world of work, or even start school. 

Commercial benefits 

There are numerous benefits to increasing diversity in the workplace, including: 

  • Wider economics. Enabling BME individuals to fulfil their potential at work is estimated to be worth around £24 billion a year, while reducing the gender pay gap could increase GDP by around 5%.
  • Profits. A more diverse workforce is able to create more innovative products or services more productively than groups from similar demographics.
  • Attracting customers and employees. Increasing who you represent means expanding your reach and outlook and this can only be good for business.

Baroness McGregor-Smith is clear: There is no reason why every organisation in the UK should not have a workforce that proportionately reflects the diversity of the communities in which they operate, at every level.”

How can it be done? 

The mission statements from Stonewall and Disability Rights UK are united in their objectives: to create a more inclusive community in which to live and work. This can be achieved through making simple changes:  

  • Recognition. Accept that there is a reason for not attracting diverse candidates and recognise that change is necessary.
  • Talk about diversity at work. Keep it on the agenda at all times, from procurement and recruitment to board-level strategy. Challenge the board to ask themselves why they look and think alike and why this might be holding the company back.
  • Collect data. To benchmark against local and regional statistics to understand whether you are representative of your area. Publishing the data keeps the business accountable.
  • Training. People inherently recruit and promote through their own, biased perspective. Train people to recognise how they unconsciously favour traits and similarities.
  • Set diversity targets. A business should understand how representative they are of their local community. Aspirational targets will keep employees motivated.
  • Recruitment. Use a diverse panel of decision-makers and adopt name-blind or education-blind recruitment methods to neutralise inherent prejudice. Focus on what a person brings to a team that is different, rather than someone who conforms. If you aren‘t attracting a variety of candidates, change how you are recruiting.
  • Reverse mentoring schemes. This allows those who are not disadvantaged to understand the lived experience. It is crucial in changing attitudes and bias, both consciously and unconsciously.
  • Role models and promotion. Identify a trusted diversity champion at senior level, and establish an inclusive leadership programme to bring through talent, irrespective of backgrounds and characteristics.
  • Transparency. Making pay, reward and progression transparent in a business forces a scrutiny of values from within and will help set the tone of the culture of development and achievement based on objective measures.
  • Accountability. Ensure that at every level, leaders and managers in the business have diversity embedded into their objectives. Change typically happens faster if it is mandated.

These principles are not a solution in isolation. It is necessary to consider a variety of measures to continuously improve and challenge progress, but provided the executive decision-makers ensure diversity and inclusion is always a priority, progress is inevitable. 

The time is now 

Change takes time, so setting diversity targets years ahead is not a passive way of implementing cultural change. The sooner a commitment is made to change the working culture, the sooner both businesses and the community in which they operate will benefit. 

Although one year on, the Scorecard report highlighted no significant improvement in many of the McGregor-Smith Review recommendations, the summer of 2020 has ignited a sweeping desire for change on a global and unprecedented scale.  

The murder of George Floyd in particular has triggered an irreversible change in attitudes. It has opened eyes and brought about a deep-rooted desire for justice, for inclusion and for an absolute recognition of the benefits of equality 

This new momentum means that UK employers across all sectors have as good an opportunity as ever to bring about a more diverse and more inclusive society in which to thrive.  

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