The battle buses are out…

And so we are off. Last week’s “The ITV Leaders’ Debate” effectively signalled the start of the 2015 General Election campaign. No doubt you will have read the media pundits’ verdicts on the debate’s winners and losers, studied the graphics via social media, charting which of the 7 leaders managed to impress the British public, and of course would have read, with great interest, the endless commentary on twitter. No? Me neither. But I did have a rather interesting conversation last week when a senior Executive of a large multi-national asked me for my assessment of the Coalition Government’s record on equality policies at work.

So, in the spirit of the current campaign here are some of the headlines of the last 5 years:

Removal of the Default Retirement Age: This was one of the first inclusion orientated policies enacted by the Coalition Government. Partly driven by the realities of growing financial pressure on future pensions, what this policy also signalled was a recognition that the age demographics of the UK’s workforce is, and will continue to change fairly radically. Our workforce is simply getting older. Many business leaders now recognise that the removal of a fixed retirement age allows employers to manage talent flows that support business innovation and growth through effective management of knowledge and skills transfer.

Introduction of Flexible Working: Research published by Samsung earlier this year found that a quarter of employees would rather opt for flexible working arrangements over a pay rise. A further study conducted by Unify (the communications specialist) found that 76% of employees reported that they would either change job roles or department, or even employers for the opportunity to work flexibly. The introduction of new flexible working arrangements seeks to change the way we view workplace flexibility by essentially removing the right to request based on a specific need – such as because an individual employee has a disability or because they have certain caring responsibilities or they are parents with young children. What this policy aims to do is open up flexible working opportunities for all individuals, regardless of which diversity box they fit not so neatly into. I know through my conversations with senior HR Executives that some were initially concerned about this policy. In the words of the Head of Legal from a national business over dinner once, ‘this means we are going to have to seriously! consider all sorts of requests including employees wanting every Wednesday afternoon off to play golf’. At the end of the evening I think she came around to recognise that this is not a free for all policy and that business needs are of course considered within any decision. For me what this policy represents is a positive response to growing work-life balance expectations. Whilst it’s not quite the break from old style clock watching mirco-management that ‘agile working’ promotes, it is a step in the right direction.

Introduction of Shared Parental Leave from April 2015: This policy is a major step forward, which in time will hopefully contribute to a change in social attitudes that re-enforce traditional gender biases of women as carers and men as bread-winners. What this policy seeks to promote is flexibility and choice into parenting and in doing so – along with more targeted measures – should help to plug the leaky pipeline over time. Research from Slater and Gordon found 80% of those surveyed would expect to share a portion of their leave with their partner. Businesses are responding positively; EY announced that it will follow the Civil Service in offering a parental pay package of an equal amount to mothers, fathers, same sex couples and adoptive parents.

Good work but more to do?

A central theme of the Coalition Government, supported in particular by Vince Cable the Business Secretary has been the women on boards’ agenda. The latest report from Cranfield University School of Management suggests that over the last four years female representation has almost doubled to 23.5%. Whilst this progress is surely something to be celebrated, a study by Green Park Executive Recruitment found that UK boardrooms are depressingly white. Their research suggests that of the FTSE 100, the number of all white executive teams currently stands at 69%. Additionally, of FTSE 100 board directors, 95% are white. In launching the 2020 Initiative, the Business Secretary suggested that companies should aim to have 20% of directors from ethnic minority communities by 2020.

Another area that clearly needs more effort from any new government post 7th May is gender pay. When Theresa May, launched Think, Act, Report in 2011, with a view to improving transparency on pay, a host of UK business signed up to the initiative. 3 years on only four companies have published data on gender pay. Nick Clegg has promised that a future government involving his party would force companies to publish pay data. If the current opinion polls are to be believed, his view might have limited appeal. That said whoever forms the next government gender pay – currently standing at 9.4% – remains a key equality issue.

A manifesto for inclusion

Following consultation with UK business we at enei identified a number of key policy issues which any future government would need to consider implementing if it wished to continue to work towards eliminating inequalities and promoting modern, diverse and inclusive workplaces. These include:

  1. Strengthen positive action in measures, including the introduction of ‘blind CVs’
  2. Consider introducing diversity targets in employment that are proportionate for larger employers and SMEs
  3. End unpaid internships and ensure employers offer quality work experience that complies with the principles of the Equality Act 2010
  4. Promote the adoption of agile working practices through business rates and encourage suppliers to adopt best practice diversity & inclusion principles
  5. Government responsibility: Centralise responsibility and accountability in a single Government Office for all equality, diversity and inclusion policy areas and have dedicated Secretary of State for Equality.

Let the campaigning continue…

Dan Robertson

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Dan Robertson is the Diversity & Inclusion Director at the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, ( He is highly respected as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity & inclusion management, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Connect on LinkedIn: Dan Robertson or Twitter: @dan_robertson1

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