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Diversity in the workplace

Diversity in retail at board level is very low, says Steve Baggi, co-founder of Green Park Interim & Executive Resourcing

Retailers in the UK are proud of the diversity of their workforces. The shopfloor looks diverse, lower mid-management looks reasonably diverse, and the CSR and diversity policies on websites look very compelling. Retailers can rightly celebrate that, because many have worked extremely hard to achieve it. But, it’s a useful and convincing camouflage for the fact that diversity at board level- or even senior management - in the UK are still extremely low. How many of the top 50 retailers have diversity at board level? Not many. Take out gender, and you’re left with even fewer. Even including gender, you have an industry that is trailing the pack when it comes to recognising and capitalising on the benefits of diversity.

The drive to increase diversity at senior level in the UK has, so far, been a largely cosmetic effort. Across all sectors, high-profile role models are proudly paraded as examples of the giant steps we are taking toward a representative workforce. However, the fact is that these individuals still represent the exception, rather than the rule. Underneath those few high profile diverse icons, the story has been similar for decades: the general trend is that “the usual suspects” are running the economy. Retail is notoriously insular - you’re either in retail, or you’re not: there’s no such thing as bringing in best practice from elsewhere.

Glass ceiling

In retail, there has always been a glass ceiling. But there has been improvement - that glass ceiling used to sit just above the shop floor, whereas now it’s probably a couple of flights upstairs. The diversity roadblock in the industry seems to be set at about the £80,000 per annum mark. At that level, diverse candidates seem to find their careers stalling, even if their rise until that point has been meteoric.

The crux of the challenge is turning the argument on its head, promoting awareness of diversity as a source of competitive advantage, rather than an obligation in the interests of good PR and CSR. When organisations understand that diversity is one of the last frontiers of competitive advantage, they’ll be rushing to weave it deeply into their corporate recruitment and retention strategy, rather than creating long-winded diversity policies to satisfy legal obligation or avoid the next lawsuit. In this regard, our financial services peers are already making strong progress. It’s important to note that some retailers are achieving results as well, but at the moment we are seeing a ripple rather than a wave.

Customer base

For retailers, it should be a logical move. The customer base in the UK is remarkably diverse - a blend of cultures, religions, beliefs, lifestyle choices, characteristics and abilities. Surely the group of people creating the propositions, brands and products to sell to such a group would have similar diversity of composition, to better understand and target a diverse customer base?

For example, if a retail company had a board of eight men, who all went to the same or similar schools and had the same or similar upbringing and wealth profile, and were all about the same age, would you expect them to collectively demonstrate the difference of experience, viewpoint and approach? The increasingly popular concept of Groupthink suggests that such groups would probably have pretty similar ideas and approaches. What’s more, they’d unconsciously (and maybe even consciously) be drawn toward maintaining the status quo. It’s comfortable and even probably sensible to do so from a career management point of view because you ‘wouldn’t want to rock the boat’. I’m not saying it’s a sure recipe for failure - a retail board like that might do very well, but they’d be missing an opportunity to capitalise on ‘the power of collective difference’ and build a greater understanding of their employees and customers.

The real change needs to come from retailers who want to capitalise on innovation and progress driven by diversity of understanding, approaches and ideas. Will retail boards be more diverse places in the future? I hope so: the power of collective difference is too compelling for us to keep ignoring.

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