There are multiple benefits to having a diverse and inclusive workforce in the public sector. A diversity of experience and perspectives inspires innovation and leads to an improved service that can better meet the needs of residents, service users and clients.
While these benefits are generally recognised, the public sector is falling short in recognising the importance of diversity at senior levels. It shouldn’t just be about looking like the right organisation at the top, but about valuing the better leadership that diversity brings.
In Hackney, we have been looking at why this matters. One reason is that it problematic for decisions affecting the lives of our diverse communities to be made by a group that doesn’t reflect them.
We are doing well with gender equality and are rightly proud to have a positive gender pay gap that benefits women. We are also proud to be an organisation where there are more women than men in the top 25 percent of earners. The council has also won a number of awards as an employer, excelling for example as an employer for school leavers.
We are very proud of this record of achievement, but we know that we still have a long way to go to reflect the diversity of Hackney’s communities at senior levels in the council. One area that we want to improve is ethnic diversity. Hackney is a diverse borough and when you look at our workforce profile, it broadly reflects our community, although there are some gaps.
However, the higher up the organisation you go, the less diverse we are while there is an over-representation among the lower grades. We are examining why this glass ceiling exists, what the impact is on staff and residents, and what we can do to ensure that, over time, those making key decisions reflect the communities they serve.
We also want to influence more diverse and inclusive practices across all statutory systems. As part of our Improving Outcomes for Young Black Men programme (blogged about on the Synergi site here) we are working with staff to identify the practice and policy changes required of statutory bodies to tackle broader inequalities, particularly around mental health and their impact.
Through our Improving Outcomes within Mental Health and Wellbeing workstream, we want to understand the systemic challenges across the health system which creates disproportionate outcomes for young black men, and co-develop practical solutions. Looking at workforce diversity is a particularly pressing need. The benefits of reflecting diversity in this sector have been well researched nationally but not acted on systematically.
In 2018, we launched a programme to promote a more inclusive and diverse workforce across the organisation. One of the key equality issues under investigation is the under-representation of BME staff at senior levels of leadership. To understand this, we will focus on the positive action needed to address the issues and barriers preventing BME staff progressing to senior leadership positions, and to identify opportunities to make recruitment processes for senior leadership roles more open and transparent.
Over the past year, we have been listening to the workforce, gathering insights to identify solutions. Research undertaken by CIPD in 2019 found that a fundamental factor to ensure job quality, satisfaction and improved innovation is for employees to have an effective and meaningful voice in the workplace. This process of engagement has is an important part the development of inclusivity and diversity strategies, workforce profiles and building the right organisational culture.
The engagement so far includes holding focus groups between staff and senior leaders, with the specific aim of discussing workplace culture, management, views of racial and cultural diversity and career progression of BME staff.
We recognise that these conversations can be difficult and uncomfortable, but they have played a vital role in helping us understand the underlying issues that staff are concerned about, and too tackle key inequality gaps in the workforce. There are a range of ways to host a dialogue with staff, for instance, we are also setting up a staff network of inclusive leadership champions to drive internal culture change. As a result of this early work, we have started to test out practices such as blind recruitment to help reduce the risk of unconscious bias when shortlisting candidates to council jobs.
The staff focus groups we hosted looked at three key areas: managers’ openness to feedback, managers’ view of cultural diversity, and career progression. Staff tell us that managers’ support and active encouragement are important to them and crucial for career progression. Staff also expressed concern about being seen as a ‘troublemaker’ when raising concerns.
It is important to take an intersectional view of overlapping identities and the impact this can have on advantage or disadvantage. It is equally important to look at how microaggressions and unconscious bias can impact significantly on staff confidence and feelings of marginalisation.
The cumulative effects of microaggressions, experienced on a day to day basis for some people, can lead to low self-esteem, poor mental health and negative outcomes. However, when microaggressions happen, and an employee brings it up, they feel that the topic of race is always dismissed from such conversations.
They also note that alternative explanations are always offered to explain or understand negative behaviours rather than acknowledging the behaviour may be linked to race. When this happens, people can feel that their experiences have been dismissed or invalidated. When this happens in the workplace, the impact can be exacerbated.
We are now working with staff to develop actions under the following areas:
- looking at the data we have to understand what it tells us about our workforce
- improving the employee journey, as well as recruitment and retention rates by adopting more inclusive employment practices, and enhance our training offer for both management and the workforce
- raising awareness and challenging unconscious bias by increasing accountability and transparency around development of staff
- investing in safe spaces in the form of staff-led BME networks.
Alongside this focused work to address the progression of BME staff, we are also looking at how we develop a more inclusive leadership culture. We have adopted a set of features of inclusive leadership and have recruited and trained 35 Inclusive Leadership Champions. They come from almost every division and reflect Hackney’s diversity and key equality groups. Champions have begun training senior managers and will are working with us to embed the principles into culture, policy and process.
Research shows that under-representation of certain ethnic groups may arise from historic disadvantage and an increasingly divided society. In response to this, we have developed a dedicated Inclusive Economy Strategy which will set out how we will use our influence to campaign and lobby in response to the opportunities arising from a changing economy. Not just for our residents, but for our staff and in our role as a major employer.
About the Author
Carole Williams has been a Hackney Councillor for Hoxton and then for the Hoxton West Ward since 2002. In 2016, Carole became Hackney’s first ever Cabinet Member for Employment, Skills and Human Resources. She is also the lead Member for Equalities and in 2019 became the lead Member for Hackney’s response to the Windrush Scandal, the first lead Member for Windrush across the country.
Carole is at the forefront of efforts to increase diversity across the public sector, and plays a central role in delivering on the Mayor of Hackney’s priority of tackling inequality in the Borough. Carole also leads on Hackney’s Ways into Work job brokerage service, promoting and securing apprenticeships for young people, maximising job opportunities for residents and working to deliver flexible working to support parents to enter the workforce and progress their own careers.