It's all too easy for organisations to become stocked with clones and yes-men. Many firms discourage diversity, says Dianah Worman, policy adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD). 'People have a natural inclination to recruit people just like themselves. In those cases, a natural (and often unconscious) prejudice kicks in, which prevents employers realising that recruiting someone from outside the usual mould may bring a wealth of new ideas and approaches to the company.'
Employers such as the BBC and British Telecom favour a diverse workforce, recognising that it can bring competitive advantage. The BBC has been training journalists from ethnic minorities for the last 10-15 years.
By law, it cannot positively discriminate on jobs but it runs courses to ensure that trainees have the right skills to be able to apply for a job in the first place.
BT tries to reflect the local community in each location, says spokesperson Aileen Boughen. 'Although 7% of our workforce is made up of ethnic minorities, parts of Scotland will be very different from parts of the Midlands.' It also supports Positive about Disabled People, a Department for Education and Employment scheme which encourages potential employers to interview any disabled individual who meets the basic job criteria. About 2% of the company's workforce is disabled. Unfortunately, many companies do not take BT's approach. Research suggests that, while 14% of the general population have a disability, they are more likely than the able-bodied to be unemployed.
Yet they usually work with the same productivity level, have a better than average safety record, and lower rates of absenteeism and sickness.
Those in favour of diversity aim to broaden the scope of equal opportunities beyond the narrow issues and definitions covered by the law. They positively welcome people with a wide range of personal differences, whether academic or vocational qualifications, accent, age, ethnic origin, gender, marital status, political affiliation and religion. They are not automatically prejudiced about differences such as learning difficulties, previous mental illness, sexual orientation, past or irrelevant convictions and trade union membership.
Organisations taking a narrow view miss out on the benefits of fishing in a wider recruitment pond. From a racial perspective, if figures from a Skills and Enterprise Network survey are to be believed, only 33% of Britain's white population aged 16-24 is in full-time education. By contrast, 44% of blacks of a similar age and 54% of all ethnic minorities are in full-time education. This suggests that in future, ethnic minority groups should be an increasingly important source of skills.
The IPD's Worman is the first to admit that raising the diversity issue is not universally welcomed. Too often, adopting equal opportunity practices is regarded as an extra, time and budgets permitting, she says. Yet research by Johanna Fullerton and Rajvinder Kandola shows that organisations of all sizes that focus on equality and diversity attract recruits from a wider range of talented candidates, develop closer links with a broader customer base, benefit from lower staff turnover and absenteeism, and demonstrate greater organisational flexibility.