Inclusion is not an illusion for small businesses

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Despite big businesses ‘talking the talk’ on diversity, it is small businesses who are overwhelmingly diverse and passionate about giving people a chance

Big businesses tend to think in terms of gender, race or disability around inclusion. While this is undeniably vital, less focus is given to the unconscious bias towards people from certain backgrounds, or with certain outlooks or personality types, as companies seek out the right cultural ‘fit’.

The talent market is competitive and people are a company’s strongest asset so firms are right to have high performance standards. But strict hiring criteria often automatically filter out many people with potential – whether it is young people who lack relevant experience or the long-term unemployed.

The structured job application process of big businesses can also be intimidating for many. Migrants and refugees may be perfectly capable, but struggle with the language or formality of a job interview, while the stigma of being an ex-offender or someone out of work for a long time can close many doors.

Small businesses have long been the natural access point for many people and new initiatives. They incubate a totally organic form of talent inclusion for many groups furthest from the labour market – economic migrants, refugees, ex-offenders, the long-time unemployed, or those suffering with mental health challenges. This brings a broader positive socio-economic impact on communities.

As Bill Richards, UK managing director of Indeed, said at the launch of our recent Small Business Community Impact Report: “Small businesses are both agents for social change and opportunity creators. The significant role this large community plays in the UK in terms of hiring diverse talent within communities and fostering inclusive working environments should not be underestimated.”

This report shows that more than a third of small business owners see it as a responsibility to help their communities and open doors for the under-represented. This is an ethos that bigger businesses would do well to echo.

For many small businesses people trump profits. More than a third of small businesses have kept on an employee when they didn’t commercially need them anymore, and almost half have created employment for an individual, to give them an opportunity, above and beyond the business’s needs.

For example, Jo Smedley of Red Herring Games in Grimsby has often kept people on beyond the point of economic need, even with the business struggling to pay its bills. If she can’t pay everyone, Smedley herself goes without pay.

To man,y these sacrifices will seem unproductive, but that is only if you see the sole raison d’être of a business as making profits. Almost 40% of small businesses are not driven primarily by profit, with 43.4% saying their aim is to support their community, and 45.8% citing connections and relationships as being what drives them. It is the trust that small businesses build that makes them pillars of their communities.

By measuring businesses purely in terms of productivity, we miss the broader, richer value that the UK’s 5.5 million small businesses bring to our communities. The long tail of small businesses has a range of social benefits; from alleviating pressure on the NHS to generating skills and training opportunities.

For instance, Brighton’s Pet Shed runs a training programme in customer service. Through this, it provides work experience to a group of young adults with learning difficulties. The transferable skills they pick up set them in good stead for other opportunities, and in some cases has led to paid employment.

How can big business learn from the approaches small businesses take to help communities? Small businesses tend to be more informal and flexible in their operations. Relationships and structures are less hierarchical, and this enables them to be more experimental and innovative in community engagement and social responsibility.

A flexible approach not just to hiring, but to day-to-day working routines is something else that separates the small from the large. While flexible working hours are becoming more common in big business, it has long been the norm for smaller firms, with 70% offering flexible working for their staff.

This is one of the ways small businesses ‘lower the kerb’ psychologically for those suffering with mental health issues, giving them a chance to work in an environment and to hours that suit them. This allows them to be more independent in the same way that literally lowering kerbs empowers the physically disabled.

The role small businesses play as a conduit for social change in communities is vital, but hugely under-acknowledged. We need to start celebrating and rewarding this more. Big businesses should be giving targeted support to help amplify their impact and we would also urge the government to consider a tax break for small businesses that are helping to solve issues at the heart of their communities.

Michelle Ovens is founder of peak b

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