Businesses must step up to tackle our social failures

Businesses must step up to tackle social failures, says Iqbal Wahhab

The recent spate of personal virtue gained from condemning government blocks on refugees and migrants reminded me a bit of Comic Relief – every now and then we step forward and show Britain at its best. And then we slip back to how we were. On the day of writing this column, I read that homophobic attacks are up 29 per cent in London, Islamophobic crimes in the capital have risen by 70 per cent and that one in seven women have suffered serious physical or sexual violence at university.

On all these fronts, businesses are lagging behind where we should be leading. Take refugees. It was individuals and communities who, after seeing the photos of drowned Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, put pressure on their elected representatives to do something, backed up by spontaneous efforts to help rebuild the lives of those who’ve successfully arrived here. I’ve seen no evidence that businesses are stepping up in the same way. How many of us have extended volunteering programmes to help refugees settle in? How many have thought about offering them work?

There’s been much talk over the last couple of years about how businesses should take steps to adjust social wrongs because, even if we don’t particularly care, our customers expect us to and, increasingly, so do our employees.

Let’s look at our workforces in this light. How many of this year’s graduate intake into your company do you imagine were responsible for that shocking university statistic on sexual harassment and violence? Nobody wants to create a combat-zone work environment based on a “guilty till proven innocent” framework but equally, unchecked we are inadvertently letting these awful trends continue on our watch.

Does this inadvertence let us off the hook? Is it good enough to say that our workforce represents society as it is, rather than an ideal form we aspire to? Government backtracked on refugees in the light of the public and media outcry but the same won’t occur on homophobia, Islamophobia or sexual violence. There will be ministerial statements of abhorrence, perhaps an enquiry; having sat on government enquiries in the past, I know what a waste of time they are.

Businesses must step up to tackle our social failures. We can start with equality charters, which every employee must pledge to honour. We then, crucially, adopt what we might call a ‘social audit’ of our HR practices – where we have noticeably low levels of female, gay, ethnic minority representation in our workforces and particularly at senior level, we should encourage applications and internal candidates to apply for positions as and when they are available.

Having gay, black or female managers and board members sets the better tone and message. It encourages respect over resentment and sets an internal tone of voice which can and should be projected outwards if for no other reason that it is demonstrably good for business.

We have customers, white as well as black, who tell us that one of the reasons they keep coming back is because we have such an ethnically diverse workforce. If you have a female boss, you are less likely to view women in a sexually predatory manner. If you have a gay or a Muslim colleague with whom you spend much of your working day, you are much less likely to leave work with homophobic or Islamophobic outlooks. Muhammad Ali once famously recited one of his poems to Harvard University students. He chose Me, We. It’s a mantra of inclusion most businesses could benefit from adopting.

Read more on business and social diversity

ActionAid UK chair Margaret Casely-Hayford talks talent, diversity and building a great company culture

FTSE 100 companies’ LGBT diversity failure

Should we reveal social mix?

About author

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab is a restaurateur who drives social impacts to the core of his businesses. The founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast is chair or patron of a variety of social projects and is planning more restaurants this year.

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