Early learning

Deborah Dalgleish says diversity education should be embedded in all aspects of a firm’s training regime

Will we look back on the past year as the point of no return for diversity issues in the business and legal arenas?

It is just over a year since the Equality Act 2010 came into force. February saw the publication of Lord Davies’ report on women on boards and the Government’s social mobility paper entitled ’Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers’ was published in April.

Last month the new Solicitors Regulation Authority Handbook came into force. ­Principle 9 requires law firms not simply to comply with minimum standards, but to promote diversity and equality of ­opportunity in the workplace.

There is much for firms to do to keep pace with all this change. The role of learning and development to raise awareness and ensure that good practice becomes the norm is key. Of course, training is only one of the steps necessary to embed a good diversity approach. However, it allows firms to set the tone of what they want to do and decide how best to reach a range of audiences. It offers scope for an organisation that wants to adopt a proactive stance.

For example, Davies’ report means not only that firms need to consider what they can do to secure the business edge that ­better gender balance at a senior level delivers, but also understand the pressures their corporate clients are under in this context.

The launch of the ’Prime’ initiative by 23 law firms in September showed that the acknowledgement of social mobility is one of the most critical strands of diversity. ­Principle 9 will entail consideration of how diversity measures are having an effect rather than just ticking boxes.

One might therefore be forgiven for ­wondering if some kind of tipping point has been reached, whereby diversity and inclusion are now part of business as usual. It is certainly true that many more ­businesses are understanding that ­diversity represents the happy convergence of ­business ethics and business sense: it is easier to persuade an organisation to do what is right for ­individuals when this ­delivers added value for the business. The reality, of course, is that we are only at the start of a long journey.

For the greater good

Learning and development interventions are valuable for some of the people ­processes needed to move towards a diverse and ­inclusive environment. A good example is effective recruitment and talent management, which is key to ensuring an organisation can access, attract and retain the widest possible range of talent. This cannot happen without support for those recruiting and managing.

It is no use developing objective selection or promotion criteria if those responsible for implementing these do not understand why they are important, how they were devised and how to gather supporting ­evidence.

Similarly, leadership development, ­including communication, mentoring and coaching skills, will do much to ensure that all employees feel involved and respected, which is crucial for an inclusive culture.

Setting a firm’s position out on diversity and inclusion at induction, along with awareness-raising sessions, sends a ­message about values and attitudes and sets the tone from day one.

Thought policing

While awareness-raising may cover ­practical issues arising from statutory duties under the Equality Act, regulatory impacts stemming from Principle 9 and the ethical and business cases for diversity organisations are realising the importance of educating their people about ­unconscious bias in the workplace.

By its very nature hard to detect, ­unconscious bias is the background ­constant that provides the context for all we observe and the setting for all we do.

We may believe that we are objective in our approach, but it is almost impossible that our judgement is not directed by the myriad influences of background, education, ­nationality, religion or any of the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”.

Inclusivity avidity

Needless to say, the most important aspect of embedding good diversity practice is engagement by senior leaders. If a firm’s management does not want it, why should employees?

Training has a role to play here too. Even partners and general counsel need coaching and support in how to take their businesses forward and ensure they take their people with them.

Finally, a well-thought-out training ­programme can ensure that relevant aspects of diversity are embedded in all training courses, not just those focused on diversity awareness or people management. ­Moving towards an inclusive environment entails significant effort, so the help a ­training programme can provide should not be underestimated.

Deborah Dalgleish is diversity and inclusion manager at Ashurst