CBI urges swifter progress on more inclusive workplaces

CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn is urging businesses to raise the pace of change and make workplace diversity a top strategic priority. She also warned the UK’s progress risked stalling in the face of current challenges.

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Addressing delegates at the CBI’s Diversity and Inclusion conference in London, Ms Fairbairn made the case that diversity in the workplace was not just a matter of fairness, but an enlightened response to major changes in demographics, politics and technology.In a robust and wide-ranging speech, she urged businesses to make swifter progress on creating more inclusive workplaces that encompassed diversity in all its forms. She also said businesses must not allow diversity and inclusion to slip down the agenda in the face of competing priorities.“Progress towards inclusive workplaces must pick-up the pace,” she said. “I’m talking about every kind of diversity – ethnicity, social background, sexual orientation, age.“We need to use what we know works and make it the norm in all our businesses. Not as a footnote to other priorities, but as a top strategic priority for our country.“It is only going to become more important, as we head into a perfect storm of changes in demographics and technology that will make talent the number one worry for our firms. For many, it already is.”

Bridging skills gaps with more inclusive practices

Highlighting the economic and political headwinds, Carolyn Fairbairn drew attention to the D&I agenda and the likely impact the UK’s exit from the EU would have on the availability of workers with key skills.“In part, it’s a simple numbers game as labour supply in this country is tightening,” she noted at the Boston Consulting Group-sponsored event, which took place on 24 April.“Whatever the impact of leaving the EU, there are likely to be fewer EU migrants coming to work in the UK than in the past. At the same time, the UK’s domestic labour force is shrinking as the Baby Boomers retire, making it even harder for firms to find the right people.“It’s also in part a skills game, as having the right skills for the future is firms’ leading source of competitive advantage. Automation and digital technologies are a real chance to improve our productivity, currently the third lowest in the G7. Government has a role, but this is mostly down to us. We must speed things up.”

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UK risks going backwards on equality at work

Ms Fairbairn also drew on data in the public realm that showed the gains made by businesses after government-led voluntary targets for women in senior leadership roles were under threat.“At times of great change, and we are most certainly in one, priorities compete and things can go backwards. It can be too easy to let things slip down a list, perhaps even to seek comfort in the familiar – people like you, and not different from you.“We are seeing some early warning signs that should concern us. The Davies Review did a great job increasing the share of board jobs going to women from one in seven to one in three. But, in the last year, this has fallen back to one in four. And while there were 18 women CEOs in the FTSE350 in 2015, today we’ve slipped back to just 16.“I worry progress in other areas may reverse if economic headwinds grow. In tougher times, a search for experience might well end up being a search in a traditional pool, closing the door on greater inclusion. Only committed leadership can win against this and is why it matters so much."

The role of leadership in diverse workplaces

Underlining the importance of the diversity and inclusion agenda for British business and the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn’s speech comes at a time of great challenge for the UK economy and echoes calls the business body has made previously.The current election campaign will focus on the terms of the Britain’s exit from the EU, but political parties are also vying to decide the country's economic future. The CBI’s focus on diversity and inclusion therefore puts the issue and the role of leaders into the heart of the debate.“In my view, this remains one of the defining issues of our age,” said Ms Fairbairn. “How we make ours an economy for everyone, and use this as a source of advantage for the UK, as I believe it can and should be.“Of course, this is about fairness, a very important word in today’s environment. But it’s also about hard-nosed competitiveness. I’d like it to be up in lights in the new Industrial Strategy, the business case for diversity and inclusion is rock solid. Firms with the highest levels of gender diversity are 15 per cent more likely to outperform their rivals. While those companies with the highest levels of ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to do so.“It isn’t a question of only changing the picture on boards, or of a focus on one group. It is about building inclusive workplaces that harness the best innovation and productivity the British workforce can offer because people feel accepted, supported and have opportunities to thrive.“We of course know that real change will take more than stated commitment. The more I see of what works, the more it’s clear me to that leadership is the key.“It is the constant action, worrying, questioning, suggesting, frankly nagging, by leaders that makes the biggest difference. It’s because progress is about no one thing, no silver bullet. It takes leadership, constant and unflinching.”

For more diversity and inclusion news and features, read Relocate magazine's coverage in the spring issue here.

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