HR priorities: diversity and inclusion hit an all-time high

Study into HR priorities in 2020 shows link between D&I and stronger business performance

For employers the pandemic crisis has meant the need to focus on the nuts and bolts of core operations. Unsurprisingly there was a collapse in training and development. There have been fewer opportunities for progression. New thinking has often been put on the back-burner.

But at the same time, new evidence suggests the stress and chaos of working through the COVID-19 period haven’t diverted progress on diversity issues by major employers in the UK and Ireland during 2020. 

Each year, as part of its programme of certification of best practice, the Top Employers Institute gathers data on the HR policies, priorities and performance of major organisations in the UK and Ireland. Some of the 98 Top Employers involved in 2021’s programme include ABB UK, Avon Cosmetics, DHL, FedEx Express UK, Harrods, Huawei, PepsiCo, Pfizer UK and Santander.

One headline from the resulting report (HR & the Customer Revolution: Aligning Business with Customers) is how Diversity and inclusion rose to fourth in the list of twenty top HR priorities. D&I has maintained its steady elevation over the years from being in 11th place just five years ago.

The following table provides a snapshot of the landscape of activity around D&I policies. 

Statement2021 – % Consistently Doing It
Diversity and inclusion are key to the key business imperatives of our organisation.93
We have defined an organisation-wide D&I programme83
Comms programme to keep employees aware of the programme68
Leaders are trained to act as role models and inspire others to take responsibility in D&I64
D&I networks are consulted to advise on the development of policies52
The impact effectiveness of our D&I programme is evaluated at least once every two years58

Action towards delivering on the diversity and inclusion agenda is now well established – but the data also highlights how there is still real work to do around leadership actions, how key networks are consulted and the evaluation of D&I effectiveness.

The research also sets out the initiatives organisations are undertaking to foster greater effectiveness in their D&I policies. One particularly noteworthy development is the increased adoption of disability disclosure programmes, establishing LGBT networks and the active promotion of diversity. 

Activity2021 – % Consistently Doing It2020 – % Consistently Doing It
Employ people from disadvantaged backgrounds6662
Programmes to attract, engage and retain older people2726
Ensure gender equality (e.g., equal career opportunities, pay equality)9694
Disability disclosure programme to allow integration & accommodation in the workplace6650
Establish an LGBT network5949
Actively promote diversity of thought, experience, skills on project or work teams8274

In practice, diversity is also supported by the shift to increased personalisation of services for employees and encouraging more flexibility.

What is changing most in terms of process is the attention to detail when delivering personal development plans. This has been made possible by the growing role of technology in delivering personalisation, enabling managers to be more adaptable in their feedback, allowing for individual circumstances and changing situations.

Among Top Employers, 84% say that all employees have the opportunity to create and follow up on their PDPs supported by technology. At this stage, 42% have performance management technology which allows them to conduct cross-analyses, look at year-on-year comparisons and identify trends and opportunities. For example, with remote working now widespread, some employees may need to be given time in the short term to regain and exceed prior levels of performance.

In turn, there is a stronger case for transitioning to an outcome-based performance management system, complete with a new set of KPIs. The technology is also allowing for a ‘levelling up’ of feedback and sharing praise and recognition. At this stage, 36% of companies have a digital platform to support crowdsourced feedback from staff at every level.

Securing ongoing commitment from management is crucial. Senior leaders were found to be actively involving themselves in the performance management system (99% consistently doing so); there was a high level of availability of coaching (87%) for managers who needed more support to help them to help others in their team and, crucially, in making sure that performance objectives were linked directly to business strategy.

The report also signals a shift to more personalised rewards – a means of allowing employees to tailor rewards to suit their personal situation, responsibilities at home or personality (cognitive diversity). Staff can trade salary for time, working from home and looser working routines.

A major overall finding from HR experiences of 2020 is how Top Employers saw higher levels of customer satisfaction despite the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting disruption and adversity. Two-thirds reported increases in customer satisfaction levels, with only 1% reporting a decrease over the same period. 68% reported improved revenue growth (compared with 61% the previous year) and 56% a hike in profitability (up from 49% in 2019). In other words, a clear correlation between adopting HR best practice, including a growing commitment to diversity, and stronger business performance.

Phil Sproston, Regional Manager (UK & Ireland), Top Employers Institute. HR & the Customer Revolution: Aligning Business with Customers: a powerful new ABC for HR in the post-pandemic workplace is available from
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