Diversity is the party invite – inclusion is being able to dance with abandon

The People’s Partner is one of the UK’s only HR and personal development consultancies, providing support, training and coaching for SME companies and individuals. Founder and director Michelle Raymond discusses the importance of diversity and empowering people in the workplace.

Make your voice heard, convey your value and communicate effectively. That’s the message from Michelle Raymond.

She is passionate about people empowerment and has learned from her own experience the importance of staying positive and challenging the status quo.

“When I think of diversity and inclusion, diversity is being invited to the party, welcoming people in,” Michelle says. “But inclusion is feeling comfortable enough to dance and a lot of people aren’t.”

One issue is lack of opportunity and she recalls the depressing experience of being overlooked in board meetings and being asked to serve tea because she was a young black woman. To overcome this perception obstacle, Michelle’s strategy is to “make sure I say something that makes sense and that lands.”

>See also: Mind the gap and raise a collective ethnic voice for change

She adds: “I always say to people that, when they go to conferences and events, asking the right questions is more important than the right answers. You don’t have to be the speaker to be important. You have value, but do you know how to convey your value and your message so that it’s communicated well.”

Taking the stage

The story of how Michelle founded The People’s Partner four years ago is the perfect example of how to convey value. She had been an HR professional for more than 15 years and was attending an entrepreneurial Wealth Dragons event when one of the speakers asked if anyone in the audience had started their own business and would like to come on stage and pitch it.

Her husband raised her arm and, suddenly, Michelle found herself standing in front of around 600 people – and without a business to pitch. Thinking on her feet, she spoke about being an HR specialist and the policies and procedures that businesses must have to be legally compliant.

“So, although I didn’t have a business, I wasn’t lying about my skill set,” she recalls. “Afterwards people in the audience were asking questions which I was able to answer. Then, when I got off stage, loads of people were saying, ‘Oh Michelle, we need your help, or we’ve just hired our first person or we’re trying to dismiss somebody, or I need some contracts. I need some NDAs, what do I do?’

“I was never entrepreneurial but that day I thought there was definitely a gap in the market. And you know what?  I went to bed and, I’m a Christian, so I prayed and it just dropped in my spirit that ‘you like to partner with people, why don’t you call yourself The People’s Partner’. A day later I formed the company and I’ve never looked back.”

The company, which employs two others, provides HR consultancy services to a variety of sectors, including property, IT, facilities management, entertainment, media and charities. It also has strategic partnerships with different stakeholders and offers training and coaching.

At first, Michelle didn’t think about competition but has since found that, although there are several HR consultancies, many of which are run by women, very few have black people at the helm. However, the larger consultancies used by the big corporates are male-dominated.

Why is this?

“Because I think the men who run HR consultancies have been managers or CEOs and have that strategic background,” she offers. “Whereas women who come into this have come up through the ranks as an office manager that supports staff. I see business in this way: you’ve got a core unit and then a periphery of women in support roles.

“But the core business of directors, CEOs and managers always seem to be men. So, they make the transition to consultancy quite nicely because they then get HR consultants, that could be women or black, to go out and do the work. I think that’s how it works for HR but, in the workplace, very few women are CEOs.”

Michelle says that, managerial perception of workplace discrimination falls into two camps: the first is those who blatantly ignore the issue, while the second are unaware of a problem and assume that, as money is being made, everyone must be happy.

Challenging attitudes

She believes that diversity of thought is as important as colour and gender. The challenge is to encourage CEOs and leaders to be more progressive in their attitudes and understand how people from different backgrounds can bring diverse ways of thinking to the table which could benefit the business.

Another obstacle is that most HR people are seen as operational – they help to do the paperwork – but they are not strategic decision-makers. Michelle insists that her clients include her in the interviewing process.

She believes that, when hiring people for leadership roles, the interview panel should include the CEO, possibly an accountant and HR to give the broader view. “I think you need people like me to challenge their thought processes and don’t just say yes,” Michelle argues. “I had a client who was hiring some directors who said, ‘oh, I’m not going for that one’ and I say, ‘why not, what criteria are you going through’?

“When they say they have to be postgraduate, I ask what relevance it has to the role and why it’s important they’ve gone to a particular university. They’ll say it will look good but look good to who because no one sees their CV once they’re in the role. Some people will shy away and think ‘oh God it’s the CEO, I don’t want to argue’. But I will ask them to tell me what thought processes were going through their head when they declined that person.”

Business can be bad for mental health

As part of her business coaching service, Michelle focuses on mental agility and mental capacity. She has a background in neuro-linguistic programming and believes it’s important that people who go into business are mentally prepared. Also, she looks at how business processes and systems can inadvertently have a negative impact on mental health.

“I have one client where the way they work stresses people out,” she says. “They have to answer the phone after two rings. That means they have a log call, which means they have to be answering every phone, which means they don’t have time to have a break, to go to the toilet and it starts to impact on their mental health.

“Organisations just don’t see it. They say they’ve always done it that way and why are people having issues after all these years. But people have issues but don’t tell you.”

Finally, on diversity generally, she says that smaller companies, that employ fewer than 250 people, tend to be more diverse in their thinking than larger companies because they network more. This means they are meeting different people. However, they often fail to follow up enough or in the right way.

On the other hand, larger companies, while having all the right policies and procedures, tend to think that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. She suggests that both large and small companies should bring together diverse talent when planning initiatives that will affect the business.

>See also: Rising and raising the diversity and inclusion agenda