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This article was first published in the February/March 2020 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace is a hot topic in the business world, not least because globalisation and technological progress are key drivers of a heterogeneous workforce. However, one aspect that is often overlooked by accountancy firms is how to update and develop their recruitment and staffing practices to give them greater access to a more diverse workforce, and all that brings in terms of acquiring and retaining the best talent, building employee engagement, boosting innovation, and improving overall business performance.

There are a number of solutions and initiatives that can help modernise your recruitment and staffing practices, enabling your firm to expand its talent by tapping a wider pool of candidates.

The first point to consider is the design of inclusive job adverts. Our experience has shown that the contents of a job advertisement and job description can have a significant impact on potential recruits, encouraging or discouraging their applications for the position.

Job descriptions often contain loaded language that make a role more attractive to a particular demographic. Conversely, the language may discourage applicants of a specific gender, sexual orientation, disability or those from a different cultural or ethnic background. Some words act as gender synonyms – ‘assertive’, for example, is often subconsciously associated as a masculine adjective. Firms should ensure they use inclusive language in their job advertisements and descriptions so they can attract candidates from all backgrounds.

Once the job advert has been placed, firms need to think about how to monitor the shortlisting process, to address possible unconscious bias in the way in which applications are assessed. During the shortlisting phase, it is good practice to review the variety and diversity of all candidates and consider why any gaps in diversity remain in the applicant pool. Firms should discuss and identify progressive actions with their senior management teams to create a more inclusive pipeline of candidates.

One option to consider is the ‘blind audition’. This is the anonymising or ‘blinding’ of demographic-related information such as a candidate’s name and gender from the recruiter or hiring manager during the shortlisting phase to prevent unconscious bias. Blind auditions are a great way to promote diversity in hiring. Assessing candidates’ skills without any knowledge of personal details that have no effect on individuals’ ability to undertake the role can allow firms to focus on finding candidates with the right skills and aptitude for the role without making premature and inappropriate judgments.

Cultural change

A significant aspect of attracting and retaining talent is creating a culture and work environment that is safe and friendly for all staff. A recent Harvard Business Review survey reported that 75% of respondents thought that superficial policies and language changes were insufficient to bring about real change in the workplace. Organisations must communicate a genuine commitment to promoting a culture open to all staff regardless of background by laying down policies that encourage such values.

Employees need to feel free to express themselves and not be judged or excluded based on their unique backgrounds or perspectives. Firms must make sure that employees feel included and are not discriminated against or treated in a less favourable way than their colleagues under the nine protected grounds of discrimination listed in the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015.

Some organisations, including leading accountancy firms, have set up diversity councils that focus on increasing the recruitment and retention of diverse staff as well as encouraging diversity of thought. It is essential to proactively implement policies that appeal to all employees to ensure that the firm practises and values the diversity and inclusion goals it sets out to achieve.

Organisations should consider adapting their leave and scheduling policies to incorporate more religious holidays, community events, etc. Encouraging flexible working hours that allow employees to be involved with their communities is another initiative that can help attract diverse, high-calibre candidates.

In our experience, it’s also essential for management teams to encourage employees to speak up if they think particular policies are hindering diversity in any way. People’s individual biases will always be a factor in how they perceive and navigate the workplace, so it’s important to encourage open and honest feedback to ensure everyone feels they have a voice.

A good way to enhance diversity is to organically create a brand that values people and opinions from all walks of life. Firms should communicate the benefits and importance of diversity of their staff, get their buy-in and embed these values in the company culture.

Several firms have developed networks to create safe environments to support diverse staff and raise awareness of the issues facing them. Establishing such networks enables employees to leverage the power of their differences to achieve the organisation’s strategic goals.

Diverse candidates will seek out employers who truly value the ideals of diversity and inclusion, and developing such ideas organically is the only way to truly access such candidates.

Sonya Boyce is a director in HR consulting at Mazars.