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Promote diversity to hold on to your talent

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Efforts to promote diversity and inclusion have been well documented recently, with many being focused on increasing gender equality. This could very well be the secret for retaining great talent.

How do your workforce really feel?

This is somewhat unsurprising in light of the new gender pay gap legislation, coming into force in April, which makes it compulsory for companies with more than 250 employees to publicly declare their gap number. There have been others too: campaigns aimed at tackling gender diversity in the boardroom (notably the 30% club), and recruiting a diverse workforce from the onset. At Lee Hecht Harrison Penna, we wanted to explore an area that could be over-looked: the role discrimination may or may not play in promotion decisions. 

Our research  has uncovered there’s a perceived lack of fairness in organisations’ promotion process among their employees, with one in five (20%) reporting feeling discriminated against in their attempts to rise up the professional ranks. Ageism was the most commonly felt cause of perceived discrimination (39%), followed by gender (26%) and employment status  (22%). Further, women are much more likely to feel they have not been giving sufficient career guidance with four in 10 (40%) reporting this to be an issue compared to just a quarter of men (26%).

What’s more, Britain’s leadership talent is most attuned to the perceived lack of fairness in the promotion process as 25-34 year olds feel most hard done by when it comes to promotion decisions:  28% compared to the average (20%). In addition to suspecting bias, they are also more likely to take proactive action with a quarter (24%) leaving jobs due to being passed over for promotion, while a further 24% have resigned because the company has lacked diversity. Not having a promotion process perceived to be accessible and fair could cost you half of your emerging talent and future leadership pipeline. Ensuring your promotion process is inclusive is not an issue worth underestimating. 

Ensuring an inclusive culture

The challenge in achieving inclusivity seems to lie in the diverging perceptions between employees and HR professionals. Nearly a third (29%) of employees see the way promotions are handled at their firm to be unfair, while almost all of HR professionals (94%) believe the process is just. To create a fairer promotion process – and ensure it’s perceived as such – HR professionals and senior management need to first acknowledge the existing disconnect by lending an ear to their employees’ concerns before endeavouring to find a solution tailored to both their organisation and staff. This might mean ripping up the handbook and starting anew with different assessment processes or just ensuring current processes are clear and accessible.

Our research showed employees and HR professionals did agree on the criteria for deserving a promotion though; over half (53%) of UK employees believe working hard and doing a good job are the most important reasons for a promotion, echoed by 41% of HR professionals. Though these values are admirable – and indeed necessary – they are also harder to quantify. Keeping a record of both performance and past conversations you’ve had with your employees means you are ensuring an open and quantifiable dialogue and guaranteeing line managers are having productive career conversations with their teams.

The media attention given to issues of diversity is an irrefutable advantage to working in the 21st century, but it has also made it all too easy to lose sight of the business benefits of achieving such admirable goals as fostering a diverse workforce. This is so much more than the right thing to do; there are clear competitive advantages to be unlocked. Cultivating an employee population of all demographics, cultural backgrounds and physical and mental capabilities means accessing the holy grail of businesses: increased creativity mingled with diversity of thought, allowing you to address problems from all angles to create solutions for any need your equally diversified customer base has. Our research shows: making your promotion processes not just fair, but clear and accessible, is key to this.


1. Opinium conducted the ‘Diversity & Inclusion’ research 10th – 16th March among 2,005 UK adults in full-time employment (18 years +) and 102 HR managers. 

2.  Includes part time, job shares, flexible working hours. 

Nicola Sullivan

By Nicola Sullivan

Nicola is sales director at Lee Hecht Harrison Penna

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