Ann Pickering: Diversity must be HR's focus for 2017

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HR needs to focus on diversity and inclusion with renewed energy in 2017, says O2 HRD Ann Pickering

There’s no doubt 2016 has been a year of seismic change – both here in the UK and throughout the world. It’s therefore never been more important for HR leaders to take stock, regroup, and consider how we can support our people in these changing times. And what better time to do this than as we bring in a new year. With this in mind, here are the HR trends I’d like to see growing in 2017.

Democratising opportunity

When Theresa May took office earlier this year she promised to build a country that works for everyone. This cohesive and inclusive ambition is something I would like to see reflected even more in the HR agenda of businesses in 2017. We cannot rely on the government alone to help individuals, whatever their background, fulfil their potential.

Initiatives such as the Social Mobility Business Compact (a government scheme to encourage companies to open up opportunities to everyone) are vital in raising the aspirations of young people. Businesses too have an essential role to play in democratising access to opportunity. This isn’t just the right thing to do, it is also good for business. To serve your customers best it’s vital that your workforce reflects and understands your customer base. 2017 must therefore be the year business commits to drawing on the widest and deepest possible talent pool.

That’s why I’m proud to say that following a rigorous government assessment O2 is one of just 11 companies within the Compact’s 200 members to retain its champion membership. This is the result of a longstanding commitment to opening up the right opportunities for people across the country. We strongly believe that diverse teams make for happier and more productive individuals – and above all that they deliver for our customers.

Making gender irrelevant

Building a country that works for everyone isn’t just about breaking down social barriers, it’s also about redressing gender equality, and helping both men and women fulfil their full potential.

It’s been great to see diversity and inclusion gradually moving up the business agenda – with Lord Davies’ target of 25% of women on FTSE 100 boards being met in 2015 a real milestone. But recent research by Berwin Leighton Paisner found that in the past year the increase in women on boards has slowed to 0.6%, showing that there is still more work to be done.

That’s why in 2017 I’d like to see businesses continuously challenging themselves to find new and better ways of promoting gender within their organisations. Next year we’ll be building on our efforts to attract even more women in senior roles through our Careers Returners programme by inviting two further groups to join the scheme. We’re also working on a much broader programme to support the existing female talent within our organisation, while continuing to strive to attract more young women into tech.

But initiatives like this cannot exist in isolation. Instead businesses and government must work together to deliver one holistic diversity strategy – aimed at attracting and retaining female talent from the classroom to the boardroom, and from school all the way to retirement.

As we wave goodbye to a divisive year I look ahead to 2017 with optimism. Our prime minister has challenged her government to build a Britain for all, and in 2017 I’d like to see HR teams doing just that – by celebrating diversity. Talent is blind to gender, ethnicity, sexuality and socioeconomic background, and the UK’s talent will be the key to unlocking growth in years to come.

Ann Pickering is HR director at O2

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