Managing gender diversity and inclusion


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In the past years, many high-profile individuals and several large institutions have fallen foul of public opinion thanks to gender issues in the workplace. Whether dealing with gender pay gap issues or allegations of harassment at work, it is clear that everyday sexism is now a big issue for employers, and it is important to be on top of the challenges to get ahead of any issues.

When allegations of sexual harassment or impropriety surface in a business, they are, by their very nature, serious. Nicola Ihnatowicz, partner in the employment department at Trowers & Hamlins, says getting the approach right at the outset is critical: “There is a danger in just approaching a complaint as a fire-fighting issue, and losing sight of it as anything more than an immediate and individual problem to be fixed. If you come to these things from wider cultural or organisational angles in the first place, they become easier to address.”

So where should management be focusing their efforts in the current highly-charged environment if they want to make sure they are following the best practice?

The answer depends on where a business already sits on the development of its diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy. The first step in the process will inevitably involve making sure compliance with legal obligations is correct – that managers know their obligations, that the right policies and procedures are in place, that employees know how to raise a grievance, managers know how to deal with issues when they are brought forward, and that the right kind of disciplinary procedures exist.

From a more cultural perspective, making the case for diversity and inclusion within the organisation, and demonstrating a commitment to equality of treatment and opportunity, is a good starting point.

Ihnatowicz says: “Actually valuing inclusivity as part of your culture is very important. That means understanding the fact that the business case for it has really come into sharp relief now that we have generational differences playing out as well. We have got early millennials moving into positions of management responsibility now, and they are saying that some of the things that Generation X had to put up with are not okay.”

Having turned a lens on the business and assessed where it currently stands from a D&I perspective, management must then decide if they are where they want to be, and if not, what they intend to do about it.

“That may mean looking at things like particular development opportunities,” says Ihnatowicz. “Have you got an issue with women not progressing, for example, which is an interesting thing that is starting to come out of gender pay reporting. You can pay men and women the same for the same job and still have a gender pay issue if all your women are clustered at the bottom of the salary scale. That is a picture emerging in a lot of large organisations.”

Another subject that may require attention is retention of top talent.

Next comes the challenge of making sure that policies and procedures are not only followed but seen to be followed. This is where best practice has arguably moved on in the last couple of years – it is no longer acceptable to ignore an allegation, or to jump to conclusions, or to attempt to bury issues with warnings and non-disclosure agreements.

"It can be very difficult for people to come forward and report allegations of harassment,” says Ihnatowicz.

“People fear for their jobs, so following through on an allegation is very important. It’s really critical to deal with a harassment allegation as quickly as possible, because it is both a horrible thing to be accused of and a horrible thing to be the victim of. An employer needs to establish the circumstances as quickly as possible and decide on the action to be taken.”

There is a danger of not reacting quickly or sensitively enough, and also of over-reacting.

Then comes the issue of accountability, which is particularly timely. “What happens if it comes to light that women have been complaining about a certain person for a long time, and lots of women have made similar allegations, but they do not know about each other?” says Ihnatowicz. “What if it has been brushed under the carpet because whoever it is has been deemed too powerful to sack? But then it all comes out. Dealing with an issue openly is the only way to do it and be accountable, and it has to be the right way.”

Consideration may need to be given to whether crimes have been committed, or whether the behaviour involved requires notification to the regulator, in the case of financial services, for example. There is an obligation to report criminal conduct to the police, but careful thought must be given to the wishes of the person making the complaint.

A common issue arises around the oversharing or under-sharing of confidential information: an employee has the right to raise a grievance and have that matter dealt confidentially, but the person being accused also has the right to know the allegations being made against them. Usually when disclosing an allegation to the accused, it becomes clear who the accuser is, and so an employer should never guarantee complete anonymity to a complainant.

In the event that an investigation is needed, questions may need to be asked of other people, and it may also be necessary to separate the two individuals involved on a day-to-day basis. It is almost always the case that the person being accused is more senior, and so less mobile between departments or office sites, but any relocation made during an investigation needs to come with clarity that no judgement is being made.

Across the board, in difficult circumstances, the key to successfully managing gender diversity and inclusion comes in putting best practice at the heart of the company culture.

"Getting the legal side right is just one part of it,” says Ihnatowicz.

“There are other things that companies can do that are good ideas. I’ve seen lots of bigger employers introducing anonymous reporting lines, for example, as ways of helping them identify if they have problems within their workforce that they might not otherwise be aware of.”

She concludes: “Having a governance process only gets you so far if people don’t have the confidence to raise issues. At the end of the day, this is not just about stopping harassment, it’s about mentoring programmes, talent development programmes, family-friendly policies, and encouraging women to return from maternity leave. It shouldn’t be about fire-fighting when things go wrong, but about getting the culture right in the first place.”

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