Helen Swire, assistant editor of Reward magazine, spoke to David about his experiences and the equality issues facing businesses today.
You’ve been championing workplace equality for many years. What initiatives did you deal with when in government?
During my time as Education and Employment Secretary I launched the Learning & Skills Councils, created Job Centre Plus and oversaw the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality (now the EHRC), which also incorporated the Disability Rights Commission.
So I was responsible for gender, race and disability equality. I’ve experienced challenges myself, and know the importance of persuading people that someone with a disability can work on equal terms.
However, this is not just about individuals who fall into those categories – this is an issue for us all, because at some point in our lives, we will face a workplace challenge, whether that’s in mental health, or about ageing in the workforce.
The workforce needs to think more about these issues – we must be much more imaginative about people working flexibly and part-time, particularly if they’ve got disability challenges.
We’re in a rapidly changing environment. We need to be in thinking through what the challenges of tomorrow will be.
What are today’s key issues in workplace equality?
One issue is the ageing workforce – we must enable people to work longer and more effectively, which involves looking at the nature of the workplace, what we ask of employees and whether new technology can help. Experience is vital, and people with lifelong commitment and dedication can contribute an awful lot.
However, it’s also about preparing and inducting young people into the workplace. Workplaces should run meaningful apprenticeships, and recognise that a lot of young people do not have the skill set that we might expect them to have. While there’s a responsibility on the education system and government to act on that, the practical reality is that it will fall on employers’ shoulders.
Other key challenges at present are around changing legislation, for example the right to flexible working, and the shared parental leave laws. Employers need to implement the legislative changes in a way that both engages the employees and sustains the profitability of the workforce.
This involves the challenge of major shifts in attitude, by senior management as well as the engagement of the workforce themselves.
How should employers address these challenges?
People need to think about management in new ways. It’s easier when it’s a small company where employees can relate to each other face-to-face.
It’s more difficult to achieve that interaction in bigger companies, so there has to be understanding of the nature of the job and the skills required, and also what the company’s objectives and challenges are.
Years of experience have also shown that the more routine a task is, the less likely an employee is to feel they are making a contribution to the company – the more diverse the form of employment, the more motivated the individual is.
So there are a whole range of challenges that workplaces are facing, from traditional diversity in terms of gender, race and disability, through to the less tangible challenge of engaging the talent they’re paying for.
What’s more impactful in engaging employees – expensive benefits or simple ‘thanks’?
People like to feel that they’re well-rewarded, but this can actually be best achieved by them knowing that they’re cared about and valued. Even very small opportunities to say thank you and show that employers have listened really matter to employees.
Companies also need to realise that HR isn’t a separate entity which should deal with these issues alone. Managing executives, technical management, finance directors, and those giving legal advice need to become HR contributors themselves.
In other words, diversity and engagement challenges are faced right across the board by senior management. A more cohesive approach would give everyone more of an ownership of the issues of inequality, and give them more of a part to play in resolving them.
What change would you like to see in workplace equality in 2015?
I would bring in the living wage. There are literally millions of people who are still paid at a very low level, and recognition that we are lifting people above poverty pay is the best motivator. That can then be built on by other forms of recognition, and other non-financial rewards.
Hear David at Reward Live
David Blunkett will be the opening keynote at Reward Live taking place at Edgbaston Cricket Ground on 13 and 14 May. The conference is free to attend for HR and reward/benefits directors and managers and will explore the latest trends and best practice in workplace benefits, from pay and pensions to childcare and flexible working. To find out more visit www.rewardlive.co.uk
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