Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace: reflections from the IES conference

Blog posts

18 Jun 2021

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Senior Research Fellow 

 Conference resources available here

The importance of understanding Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) is not new, but the Covid-19 pandemic and social movements such as Black Lives Matter have served to exacerbate existing trends in inequalities around both health and employment.  This year, the IES annual conference looked to understand how organisations can approach and embed EDI in a way that moves away from ‘tokenism’ and leading to more sustainable action.  A number of key themes resonated throughout.

Good work should include EDI

Liz Sayce, a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and previously CEO of Disability Rights UK, argued that we should not be ‘returning to normal’ as organisations slowly emerge from the pandemic, but should be using this as an opportunity to move the EDI agenda forward.  However, to do this effectively the concept ‘good work’ needs to have EDI embedded and not just running alongside it.  When this happens the positive implications of EDI will be felt by both the individual and the organisation.  Widening the definition of good work will help to develop a culture of fairness and effectiveness, where every individual (and not just those in the target groups) has a responsibility for moving the EDI agenda in a positive direction. 

Employee voice is too important to ignore

Both Steph Hutchings, a Disability Inclusion Specialist and Jacqueline Bowman an EU Policy Lead for the Study of Obesity, provided insights from lived experiences of EDI in the workplace, and both challenged organisations not to make assumptions about what employees in target groups experience – but to actually listen to them.  Steph discussed the importance of co-production and the need to hear individual stories to ensure that all employees have an equal and equitable experience and acknowledge employee journeys.  When this occurs, organisations will have a better understanding about where organisational priorities and focus should be placed.  She argued that: “It is the people in an organisation that pushes people forward, not the role.  People should be at the heart of everything you do.”  Developing employee networks provides a space for discussions to take place, to review employer actions and to not allow an issue to stagnate.  Importantly, both employees and employers should not be fearful of the ‘uncomfortable truths’ and instead use this information to make positive changes that will benefit all. 

Regulation can only go so far – employers still have a role to play

In April 2017, regulation was introduced requiring employers with 250 or more employees to publish data on the gender pay gap.  IES Principal Associate Duncan Brown discussed the argument for pay gap reporting to be made mandatory for other protected characteristics, including ethnicity and disability.  Duncan argued that as gender pay gap reporting has helped in holding businesses accountable on gender diversity, there is now growing support for ethnicity and disability gap reporting, which should be mandated by government.  Duncan also posed some interesting questions for organisations, including: “How far does the black and minority ethnic population in your organisation match that of the local community?” and “Are organisations doing enough to understand why some populations may be under-represented, and potentially under-paid?”  HR has a role of play in shaping EDI standards and embedding them as core parts of an organisation’s strategy, instead of waiting for regulations to be imposed upon them.

Is it time to widen EDI definitions?

The conference included two presentations that challenged attendees to consider other forms of discrimination in the workplace that may not fall under ‘traditional EDI’ themes.  Jacqueline Bowman discussed obesity in the workplace and argued whether this was the last acceptable form of discrimination.  In a presentation that included a powerful personal testimony of what it is like to live and work with obesity, Jacqueline delivered a call to action for both employers and employees to challenge everyday assumptions around the causes of obesity.  The current public expression of ‘eat less, do more’ suggests that obesity is a lifestyle choice, which has led to misconceptions about the condition, which has recently been classified by the European Commission as a chronic and relapsing disease.  Jacqueline commented that now is the time to reconsider what policy frameworks need to be put into place to address discriminatory practices, and how these can be fully integrated into organisational cultures.  There are simple steps that can progress this in organisations – for example, the use of people first language and the dialogue around obesity.  In Jacqueline’s experience getting this right is more respectful than empathy.

Barry Boffy, Head of Inclusion & Diversity at British Transport Police, introduced the concept of ‘Diversity of Thought’ and provided a case study highlighting that even in organisations that require an element of uniformity, diversity of thought is still crucial for employees to bring their authentic selves to work.  Diversity of thought is not just about accommodating those with neurodiverse conditions, but also about valuing the insights that they bring.  Barry asked the question: ‘When thinking about EDI, do we also think about the need to belong?’  He argued that belonging should be encapsulated into EDI, as it encompasses the concept of being ‘you’ at work in a way that is fully valued and creating a work environment where people can be themselves. 

The challenge for HR

The conference provided a number of challenges for HR to consider both now and in the future for EDI.  Wendy Cartwright, former HR Director of the Olympic Delivery Authority, discussed the importance of having EDI as a business priority at all strategic levels – but to get this right, HR must use their data to understand the EDI needs of their organisation.  Are organisations using their data and metrics effectively to sufficiently understand the impact of EDI for their staff?  If EDI strategies are understood, organisations must review the impact for employee outcomes such as progression, pay, promotion and access to training and development; and how do they fit alongside other organisational objectives such as health, safety and wellbeing?  The need for HR to consult with employees is key – organisations can take actions to gain quick wins, but to embed EDI, employees need a voice so their experiences and journeys are acknowledged and learnt from.

Now really is the time to make sure that EDI policies are not just for show and ‘ticking the EDI box’, but to enable action to move the agenda forward.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.