A question of equality

Julia Cahill talks to CBRE director David Hitchcock and NES chief executive Arun Batra about the National Equality Standard and why it matters

diversity construction

What are the best companies in the world doing?” This was the question CBRE asked when it set out to measure how far it had come in its drive to ensure diversity and inclusion become embedded in its culture. The answer was to sign up to the rigorous National Equality Standard initiative, which counts Microsoft, Cisco and Vodafone among its 100 clients.

“We wanted to be the best in the industry and on the world stage,” says David Hitchcock, head of UK and EMEA building consultancy and chair of the diversity steering group at CBRE.

NES is the brainchild of Arun Batra, who ran the London mayor’s Diversity Works programme before convincing EY to sponsor NES as a new service for clients in 2013.

The initiative is supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Home Office and the Confederation of British Industry. It sets equality, diversity and inclusion criteria against which companies are assessed and develops a road map with them for ongoing improvement and NES accreditation.

CBRE became a client in 2015, soon after setting up a diversity steering group to co-ordinate its growing number of groups such as its women’s, LGBT and multicultural networks.

“We recognised that the way to get massive buy-in from our senior leadership was to get a measure of performance and set targets for improvement. There’s a cost, so you need to show improvement,” says Hitchcock. “This is about improving our service to clients and attracting and retaining the best talent. Clients say ‘You’re doing great work, but we want to see more diversity in the people you are putting in front of us.’ We are a white male dominated industry, but our client base is ever more diverse in all respects.”

The first step with EY was a paperwork exercise to assess CBRE’s policies, covering areas such as talent identification, career progression, equal pay and attitudes of the company’s leadership. Next, it interviewed staff at all levels about their awareness and experience of diversity and inclusion. They are now working together on a roadmap to accreditation and Hitchcock says the process of improvement will continue well beyond that.

So what have been the big challenges so far? “The monetary cost is quite modest – in the tens of thousands of pounds. The bigger issue is people’s time,” explains Hitchcock. “They’ve got to take time out from clients and fee earning. The opportunity cost is massive. Anyone going into this has to be willing to do that and drive it through. It’s got to be seen as a business initiative, not an HR initiative. Ciaran [Bird, UK managing director] is exceptionally passionate about it. It cascades through.”

The benefits are tangible. “It has really rammed home at board level that we are serious about this and enabled people to articulate why it is important and that there are direct business benefits, Hitchcock says. “Clients have been commenting that we are pioneering in a number of areas and that we are making big efforts to excel in this. That is very important to us.”

Arun Batra, chief executive of NES and director at EY

Batra believes all businesses should have a moral imperative to do the right thing. Then there’s a business imperative. “We now know that getting diversity right drives better business results. We appreciate that businesses are striving to find the best talent and diversity is very much part of the answer.” The data is compelling. For example, companies with women on their management boards outperform those without by 26%; companies who report the highest levels of racial diversity bring in nearly 15 times more sales revenue on average than those with the lowest levels. And in more diverse and inclusive workforces, the number of employees who intend to stay increases by 20%.

EY analysed data for RICS last year for its Building inclusivity report, which showed a construction and built environment sector that is only 13% female, 1.2% British black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME), and 0.6% disability. “The entry requirements need to be broader to give better access to the sector. Pay and talent promotion need addressing and there should be greater opportunities for flexible working,” says Batra.

The NES client list is proof that real estate businesses are taking action: Grosvenor, British Land, M&G, Arup, Lendlease and Workspace have all signed up, and support services and construction group Interserve has accreditation.

“There has been a real drive in property, legal and private equity to try to address long-term systemic problems,” says Batra. “They are not sitting on their hands, but they are in the early stages of their journey.”

Commitment to change

RICS and NES are in discussion about working collaboratively to solve long-term diversity issues in the property sector.

Last year, they produced the Building inclusivity report, which showed that nearly half of SMEs in the UK’s property industry are not monitoring the gap between male and female pay; that ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented – 23% of respondents disclosed having a workforce more than 90% white; and that leadership is still predominantly white men. Some 77% of firms who disclosed leadership gender data reported that less than 30% of their leadership are female.

The data was provided to RICS by firms signed up to RICS’ Inclusive Employer Quality Mark during their yearly self-assessment. These firms are committed to changing their diversity profile.

For more information, visit www.nationalequalitystandard.com