Imagine that your company website had an ‘Our Team’ page and each member of the workforce had had their photograph uploaded onto it. How would this page look?
If you work in many parts of the property sector, the chances are that it would be largely made up of men, who were largely white and largely middle-aged. This far into the 21st century, should companies really be complacent about their staff being plucked from such a small proportion of the available workforce?
“Diversity and inclusion in the workplace is integral to the success of a team, or a company’s vision, yet historically, it has been overlooked,” says Ettienne Gioia, a consultant at the property-sector recruitment consultancy, Oyster. “One of the main benefits of a more diverse team is that it means you can look at the whole marketplace, you’re not just selecting from one part of it.” (Incidentally, Oyster does have an Our Team page and it does showcase their diversity – more on which later.)
As well as this being ethically desirable, Gioia points out that a diverse team means that companies benefit from a range of perspectives and approaches, which can only be a good thing in an industry that so often requires complex solutions and lateral thinking or workarounds.
So how do you go about creating a more diverse and inclusive team? “To be honest, I don’t even like the term ‘diversity and inclusion’,” says Rob Murray, associate director at Oyster. “I prefer to think of it as representation and it’s important that the property sector is representative of the communities that it serves. If you don’t try to emulate that make up, you’re going to fall behind the curve. A lot of property companies work with the public sector and when those people want to engage their services, one of the things that they look at is how these partners come across."
He has spent several years advising companies – Oyster has more than 400 clients on its books – how to become more representative. Murray believes there should be a lot less emphasis on more traditional requirements at the recruitment stage: certain universities, specific job titles, even experience. “If you’re a surgeon, I understand that you need to have covered certain things but if you’re a surveyor, say, it’s not the same. You might find someone who is incredible but only has three not six years’ experience and didn’t go to a Russell Group university.”
“Diversity and inclusion in the workplace is integral to the success of a team” Ettienne Gioia, consultant at Oyster
Both Gioia and Murray have heard countless times that it is just very difficult, if not impossible, to recruit a fully diverse range of staff but they say the talent is there, it’s just a question of attracting it. A company could use sector-specific recruitment agencies but, if it chose to recruit directly, it could also think about where and how it advertises, targeting non-traditional sites and publications. Equally, asking applicants to pitch for the job in their own way – by perhaps sending in a video or a voice note – rather than the expected (and somewhat outmoded) covering letter, could also mean than new talent comes to a company’s door.
A company should also think about how it phrases its adverts: a famous Hewlett Packard study found that women did not apply for jobs unless they matched every single requirement in the description whereas male applicants felt happy to apply if they matched about 60% of them. So fewer bullet points could, counter-intuitively, attract an equally qualified candidate pool.
Similarly, unconsciously macho or blokey language – ‘hungry and ambitious’ is a typical example – might deter women; the tired requirement of being a ‘team player’ (no matter what the job actually involves) could put off some neurodivergent candidates. A business could also make itself more attractive to a wider pool of candidates with some simple tweaks to the way it operates: offer flexible working; be pragmatic about closing down for Christmas and Easter when people might prefer to take leave around their own religious holidays; provide prayer rooms on site and promote parental leave benefits.
“There is something to be said for the success of a team that adopts an inclusive environment, where all paths of life are welcome,” says Gioia.
And, although no one wants to own up to overt racism, biases (unconscious or otherwise) do mean that candidates from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds get fewer chances. Anonymising applications can counter this but it would be better if employers looked at why this was happening in the first place.
“I had a candidate who was perfect for a company we work with,” says Murray. “He had a Muslim name and never got an interview but when I sent in his application with just a number, he was selected.”
If finding the right candidate for a job is difficult, the ongoing challenge is retaining them. In 2019, the UK spent more than £43bn on recruitment and the current labour shortage can only exacerbate problems. Making staff feel valued is part of keeping hold of them and important for the balance sheet. Murray suggests reviewing HR policies and (anonymously) surveying staff periodically – “some companies never do this,” he says – to reflect changing concerns and priorities. Gioia points out that a representative workforce is only worth having “if everyone is heard”.
And this is a crucial point: despite the increased visibility of women, disabled and black, Asian and minority ethnic workers, there are still proportionally few in leadership positions. Yet their perspectives, skills and experiences are integral to building an equitable society.
“I think becoming more inclusive can feel slightly overwhelming but a lot of these changes are not costly, they are tiny in the great scheme of things,” says Murray. “Working in partnership with one recruitment firm can ensure the hiring process is equitable and inclusive. This is near impossible to ensure when multiple agents are working on a requirement, as it becomes a race to access the best talent.”
“It’s important that the property sector is representative of the communities that it serves” Rob Murray, associate director at Oyster