Diversity: the new black?

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Diversity has become fashionable but genuine racial inclusion is about a lot more than putting samosas in the canteen. Sue Jones reports

Everyone now understands that organisations needs good race relations. But if the need for a cultural change is obvious to training providers, educators and researchers, why are so many organisations still not doing enough?

There was a lot of soul-searching after the Macpherson report's damning comments on institutional racism surrounding the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. But the BBC's recent undercover report exposing racism among police trainees show there is some way to go.

Nor is discrimination restricted to ethnicity. People can feel excluded for many reasons, such as gender, age, religion, culture, disability or sexual orientation.

The key to dealing with discrimination seems to be turn the problem inside out. Rather than worry about who you are excluding, you should constantly aim to be as inclusive as you can: the new concept is diversity.

Bringing a wide range of people into your organisation is not only just, but can give you an advantage. Businesses are starting to see a more diverse workforce as a way of accessing untapped pools of talent pool and widening potential markets.

"Diversity has been a major strategic objective for the last four years," says Louise Knott, business support and communications manager for New College Nottingham, where every staff member does rigorous diversity training. "We want to retain our students and see that they achieve."

The college brought in Ionann Management Consultants to help raise the issues with staff. Ionann use professional actors, who do role play and answer questions in character. "Using actors brings it to life and enables people to talk about the issues in an environment that's not personalised," says Louise Knott. Although some people had been resistant to the idea of diversity training, this approach left them feeling more positive.

The actors work with a group of 120 staff, who are then asked to think of three ideas to take back to their own work and three issues for the college to consider. The next stage is small group work in teams, designed by the college's own training staff.

Targets are built into the college strategy, says Ms Knott, and include developing individual learner plans for students, good practice guides, perception surveys for staff and students, examining curriculum content and recruitment, achievement and retention rates.

All staff and governors will have received training by July 2004. The governing board has a diversity champion, and there are plans for induction training for students.

But training in diversity and equal opportunities issues has had a fraught track record.

"We've had a history where race awareness training was about blame and confrontation, but that doesn't help," says Farrah Qureshi, operational director for training and consultancy at Focus Consultancy Ltd.

He says training should build up people's capacity to do the job effectively, with all staff and clients. "How will it (the training) help them to meet their objectives? It's part of the competency framework."

"People are not born diversity-effective," she added. "They need to be helped with the skills."

Diana Yach, president of Ionann Management Consultants, agrees that feeling blamed stops people from confronting serious issues; instead they regard the trainers with suspicion as "thought police."

People must be held accountable for their actions but they will get things wrong at times, and there must be a mechanism for learning from mistakes says Ms Yach. "If they are not given feedback that certain behaviour is inappropriate, how will they change? Once people see what the issues are, there's an acceptance that that's the way to do things."

And unless management is fully behind the training, it is unlikely to succeed, a finding backed up by the independent Institute for Economic Studies.

Senior management, often the least diverse group in an organisation, must show visible commitment. Introducing a speaker and disappearing back into an office or leaving it all to the human resources department is not enough, according to the Institute's Review of training in racism awareness and valuing cultural diversity carried out for the Home Office in 2002.

Changing the organisation's culture may take time, says the review, which looked at diversity training in central and local government, the NHS and the criminal justice service.

The "sheep dip" approach in which everyone gets a dose of training once is not effective. Or, in Farrar Qureshi's words, "Diversity is for life, not just for Christmas."

Further education in general is well placed to tackle diversity issues, according to Sonja Hall, senior education policy officer at the Commission for Racial Equality. As well as guidance from the DfES and the Learning and Skills Council, there is accountability through inspections and provider review, and pressure from the Commission for Black Staff.

Public services, such as education, are covered by the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, which not only obliges them to avoid discrimination, but to actively promote equal opportunities and good race relations. But the Act does not apply to the private and voluntary sectors, and there is also concern that the concept of diversity is being used to gloss over serious problems.

"Diversity became fashionable," says Diana Yach. "It became the new black, this season's accessory. People claim they've done race and now they're on to diversity, but no organisation can possibly say they've 'done' race."

"It's important to recognise different people in the workplace, but that doesn't tackle the issues," says Roger McKenzie, race equality officer at the Trades Union Congress. "There's an idea that as long as we have samosas on the menu and recognise Diwali, we'll develop understanding and get equal opportunities, but it doesn't happen."

Mr McKenzie wants to see fresh approaches. "It needs to be more than people sitting through an equal opportunities day, it needs to be an on-going process.

"We want to work in partnership with employers to root out racism and sexism and put in strategies.

"The Race Relations Amendment Act provides a real good framework to embed equal opportunities into an organisation."


The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 placed a new obligation on public bodies to make race equality policies central to planning and not an "add-on." Public bodies are required to:

* eliminate unlawful discrimination;

* promote equal opportunities;

* promote good race relations.

They must also have clear race equality policies with arrangements for monitoring and target setting.

Discrimination on grounds of gender or disability is also unlawful.

Statutory Codes of Practice and other guidance can be found at: Disability Rights Commission www.drc-gb.org

Equal Opportunities Commission www.eoc.org.uk

Commission for Racial Equality www.cre.gov.uk

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