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Diversity in the workplace

Graduate recruiters from KPMG and IBM explain the importance of diversity in their business.

Defining diversity

Equality at work is essential to the effectiveness and productivity of an organisation. This may sound like a given, but the introduction of equality and diversity legislation to the island of Ireland – namely the Employment Equality Act of 1998 and 2004 in the Republic, and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in NI – has helped to remove many inequalities from the workplace that had previously existed with impunity. There is also specific legislation concerning disability and age discrimination in the workplace in Northern Ireland. So how exactly does diversity as a concept translate into the world of work today?

Reflecting a changing work force

Over the past 20 years, Ireland’s business landscape has shifted, swinging from a centre of manufacturing to a predominantly knowledge-based economy. Along with it the Irish work force has also changed, with an influx of non-Irish nationals settling in Ireland, north and south. The number of working women and dual-career couples has increased, and, together with an ageing work force and matters of sexual orientation, all these issues fall under the umbrella term ‘diversity’.

Most forward-thinking organisations perceive diversity to be rooted in a positive attitude to difference. Louise Murphy, HR Manager at KPMG, explains: ‘diversity is about difference, what you do with it and why. Specifically, it is about responding to social change to the benefit of both individuals and the organisation by embracing difference and creating a global culture of inclusion.’

Niamh Hayes, GET AHEAD Project Co-ordinator at AHEAD, the Association for Higher Education, Access and Disability, affirms this: ‘diversity is the concept of having staff from different backgrounds, of different nationalities, different abilities, different religions, different sexualities, with and without disabilities, different ages. In short, diversity is difference which is positively recognised.’

Nurturing talent

Attracting the best graduates is of uppermost importance to recruiters, so how do they ensure that they are employing the cream of the crop while representing an increasingly diverse working population? Niamh Hayes puts it like this: ‘a more diverse work force in a company or organisation increases its pool to recruit from, attracts more people and thus ensures that the company is not missing out on any talent.’

‘When we value diversity, we gain from different of points of view, new approaches and fresh perspectives,’ explains Seamus McGrath, Recruitment Officer at IBM Ireland. ‘Diversity of thought is a competitive advantage at IBM and we want to leverage that advantage by creating a work environment where all employees can contribute fully.’ IBM’s commitment to providing employees with disabilities with the support they need to effectively do their jobs involves ensuring that buildings are fully accessible to staff and visitors and that they can provide special equipment, devices and services for blind and deaf colleagues.

Diversity policies actively recognise the individual and seek to promote and respect differences for the good of the organisation, according to the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC). IBEC helps companies implement their own diversity strategies in accordance with best practice, and offers resources to help employers measure the levels of diversity within their organisations. This is good news for smaller organisations that might not have the resources available to larger firms.

Like many large international firms with bases in Ireland, 10 per cent of KPMG’s graduate intake is international. KPMG has dedicated resources to assist international employees with their relocation and help them make the transition to the Irish work force an easy and positive experience. Louise Murphy points out: ‘this benefits both the individual and KPMG as our new joiners can come to work content and ready to begin working, without any of the common impediments immigration and relocation can cause.’ The firm also operates a number of ‘rotation’ programmes for both experienced professionals and training accountancy graduates, which encourages a diverse work force and helps to integrate staff.

Diversity is better for business

Promoting and maintaining diversity in the workplace is crucial from a business perspective as a company’s employees should represent a cross-section of talent. Seamus McGrath explains: ‘achieving the full potential of this diversity is a business priority that is fundamental to our competitive success. A key element in our work force diversity programmes is our longstanding commitment to equal opportunity.’

Louise Murphy concurs: ‘Diversity enables us to better understand the global business environment, develop creative solutions for our firms’ clients, identify business opportunities and win new clients. Furthermore, if our people feel comfortable in who they are and are included at work, they simply work better.’

IBM Ireland actively promotes employment opportunities for women, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and those with disabilities across the cultural spectrum through a series of official mentoring groups. ‘Ireland is a huge cultural melting pot and we reflect that diversity through our longstanding policy of inclusion. We introduced our first diversity policy back in 1953, so it not a new concept for us’, says Seamus McGrath.

Challenges

There are challenges of course, the biggest of which, according to Niamh Hayes, is management, which requires time and flexibility. ‘If a company is prepared to acknowledge that management is about people rather than production, then the challenge is considerably lessened.’

Researchers at KPMG have also found that ‘minority’ groups lack access to informal social and business networks. According to Louise Murphy, ‘our member firms have addressed this by establishing many diversity networks and societies that provide access to top-quality networking opportunities’. The purpose of these networking events is to encourage employees to feel comfortable in bringing their whole selves to work, opening up new opportunities to develop their careers and to provide a network in which to develop business in innovative ways.

Tackling stereotypes

Happily, attitudes towards recruiting people with disabilities have improved over the past few years. Says Niamh Hayes: ‘more and more recruiters are aware that they are recruiting people with disabilities and if they’re not, then they should be. There is also a greater awareness of the skills and abilities of people with disabilities and the realities of their lives.’

One of AHEAD’s projects, WAM (Willing Able Mentoring), works together with employers to examine their policies and practices in employing people with disabilities. It does this through a mentored work placement programme, where recruiters learn through experience. ‘The work placements offer graduates with disabilities valuable work experience, and give recruiters the chance to assess their policies and procedures in relation to recruiting and employing people with disabilities. A learning platform for all the employers on the programme allows the employers to share their experiences’, continues Niamh Hayes. ‘It helps employers to assess where they can make changes to their policies which may affect the way they recruit graduates, ranging from how they interview, the job descriptions, needs assessments, training and so on. Direct contact with people with disabilities on a daily basis also plays a major role in diminishing stereotypical attitudes.’

This article appeared in Ireland's 100 leading graduate employers 2009.