Diversity is about activating the benefits of a range of perspectives in decision-making and developing a workforce that is representative of the organisation’s customers. An inclusive working environment is one in which everyone feels valued, no matter their background, identity or circumstances.

An inclusive workplace enables a diverse range of people to work together effectively and those diverse people also agree on the measures that are considered necessary and effective, rather than have them imposed by management.

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) goes beyond training. Awareness-raising of unconscious bias in recruiting, for example, or in exploring ways to roll out flexible working, helps to remove some of the barriers to a diverse workforce. According to the 2018 CIPD report ‘Diversity and inclusion at work’, understanding D&I across and within an organisation will best be served by HR professionals using internal data and targeting intervention accordingly.

In addressing initiatives to make the workplace more diverse, the guiding principle is: positive action is legal, but positive discrimination is illegal. According to a recent LinkedIn international survey, diversity is the biggest game-changer in hiring and the most embraced trend, with over half of companies already tackling it head-on, with 78% rating it the most important aspect of recruitment today.

Achieving a balanced workforce – what’s legal, what’s not

It is illegal to treat someone applying for a job more favourably than another on the grounds of what are known as ‘protected characteristics’, unless there is a genuine occupational requirement for doing so. The nine protected characteristics are: age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion and belief; sex; sexual orientation. 

It is legal for employers to achieve a more balanced workforce by using positive action, entirely voluntarily, to recruit or promote someone with a protected characteristic. However, there are three important provisos to consider:

  • the person in question is as qualified as other applicants. This may be difficult to ascertain, particularly in non-technical or more senior roles where candidates’ experience is likely to be more varied, which could lead to challenges from unsuccessful candidates
  • the employer does not have a policy of treating persons of the particular under-represented or disadvantaged group more favourably in connection with recruitment than persons who do not share the relevant protected characteristic
  • the more favourable treatment is a proportionate means of achieving the aim of overcoming or minimising the disadvantage, or encouraging participation.

Positive action to target under-represented groups

Employers can focus their recruitment activity in particular areas to encourage more applicants from under-represented groups. This includes advertising vacancies online and in publications with a high readership among a group with the protected characteristics needed to create a balanced workforce.

Although organisations may thus encourage applications from under-represented groups, subsequent selection procedures must be non-discriminatory. You should not, for example, set a quota. Taking positive action to employ is legal if people with a protected characteristic:

  • are at a disadvantage
  • have particular needs
  • are under-represented in an activity or type of work.