Power to the people

Employers everywhere have long been encouraged to embrace and encourage diversity among their workforces - but what does this mean in practice? Lynn Rouse talks to one UK broker to find out how they have been rising to the challenge

Bearing in mind the constant stream of anti-discrimination legislation that has come into force in the UK over the last few years, cynics could be forgiven for viewing a company's 'diversity policy' as primarily a box-ticking exercise aimed at avoiding employee disputes and recruitment recriminations.

But Jane Owen, director of sustainability at Aon UK and the person responsible for implementing the broker's diversity initiative, is quick to dismiss such scepticism. "The fact that I am a lawyer by trade is by no means an indication of a defensive strategy; this is about making people feel comfortable. It is not an initiative that attracts a lot of hype only to disappear. It has simply become part of the way we do business."

Indeed, the firm's website details its diversity approach as follows: "To encourage a culture where people are free to be themselves, a culture of inclusion, open mindedness and where peoples' differences are embraced. We know that everyone is different, and it is these differences that make the world a rich and diverse place. Respect for individuals of all types inspires loyalty in both employees and clients, which in turn helps us to achieve our business goals."

Prior to taking on her current role last May, Ms Owen - a qualified barrister - was Aon's legal and regulatory director and has been with the firm for nearly 20 years. She started the UK diversity initiative three years ago, as an adjunct to her day-to-day responsibilities, having been asked by then chief executive Dennis Mahoney to consider what the UK should be doing to mirror more established initiatives in the US. Ms Owen also took charge of the broker's community affairs and environmental responsibility functions.

So when she came to consider - in her own words - "heading off into the sunset", current CEO Peter Harmer suggested she continue part-time and devote herself to these activities - a role she is evidently relishing.

The job title of sustainability director was also her own choice; a role others may describe as head of corporate social responsibility. But in Ms Owen's eyes: "CSR is old hat; it's all about being sustainable. Plus it's a mouthful and I hate three-letter acronyms."

An encouraging atmosphere

In order to achieve the diversity objectives Aon has set itself (see box), Ms Owen understandably has to work closely with the human resources department. HR director Lynne Stannard joined the firm eight years ago at a time when a number of different firms were being brought together, and says she has since worked to "build consistent functions across Aon". She became HR director in October 2007 when, as she explains, "we had an equal opportunities policy but did not really go beyond that".

Together, they have helped build the firm's diversity council and kick-start the initiative's backbone - a wide range of different employee groups, the membership of which has risen steadily since their inception. Five groups are now active, all run by volunteers: multi-cultural diversity; Aon Pride - the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender group; people with disabilities; age; and a women's group. The latter has two distinct strands, Ms Owen explains, one of which is the women's international network, focused on enhancing business opportunities, while the second is more inwardly focused and has a sub-group for carers, which can, of course, include male employees.

"Jane is hugely encouraging of employees taking ownership," says Ms Stannard. "This is not a case of a management edict from on high; it's a collective of people, working to change the firm's culture. Rather than just ensuring we are complying with the rules and regulations, we want to go well beyond that and be much more positive in terms of engagement. Stop us if we are sounding evangelical but, in terms of raising awareness, the insurance industry has not historically been the most diverse."

One of the early and essential tasks was to work with the initial groups to agree on a framework and definition of diversity.

"It is very important, if these groups are to be funded and supported by the company, that there is a mechanism in place," explains Ms Owen. In order to achieve legitimacy, it was decided that each group's 'raison d'etre' should be something employees felt impeded their career opportunities or was negative in terms of their enjoyment of worklife.

"For example, a gay employee at Aon is in the best position to say how, by being an Aon employee, their sexuality affects them and how they interact with others," says Ms Owen. "We do not necessarily know which employees are gay - that's the whole point: we respect people and the fact they may not wish to be out at work. But, equally, we want people to know that it is absolutely fine to be open about their sexuality or religion, ensure they will not be subjected to unwelcome banter and create a genuinely inclusive atmosphere."

Any new group has to be approved by the diversity council and Ms Owen admits Aon has encountered some issues surrounding faith. "So we need to be alive to delicacies on that front. For example, evangelical Christians may find it offensive that we openly support homosexuals in the way we do."

She adds that it is also important to stress the client benefits of being a truly diverse organisation. After all, Aon is a London market player with a multi-cultural client base. "We have to be able to demonstrate we are not homogenous. Nothing in my area of sustainability is about tree-hugging; it is very business focused."

Community champions

Another achievement to date is the establishment of a 'quiet room' for all staff and clients at the London Devonshire Square base. This followed the opening of a faith room in Leicester but is not restricted to religious activities. Rather, as Ms Owen describes, it is a quiet space "for all to be able to consider and contemplate". Again, stressing the importance of employee ownership, she points out the idea came from the multi-cultural group, adding: "All I did was literally open a few doors to find a suitable room and secure the budget to redecorate."

Aon is now actively working towards the Investors in Diversity standard and hopes this will become well-recognised across the UK. And although both Ms Owen and Ms Stannard accept the diversity initiative continues to be a work in progress, it has already achieved some success in terms of other benchmarks. Aon Pride, for example, undertook the work required to submit the firm for Stonewall's workplace equality index. "We have managed to leap forward," reveals Ms Owen. "After the first entry in 2007/2008 we came in near the bottom at 231 out of 241 organisations - but our most recent score saw us ranked 151 out of 317."

She concludes: "Sustainability is not a box-ticking exercise and you can't engage with people simply by sending emails. You need to empower them. So we also have a network of eco-champions and every office has a community champion. Our people are responsible for their actions and can bring about genuine change. Aon itself can't change anything."

DIVERSITY OBJECTIVES

Reputation
to be a leader, communicate commitment and enhance the brand

Sales
to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse client base

Recruitment
to widen the talent pool and be seen as an employer of choice by people from all backgrounds

Productivity
the happier the employee, the better motivated and more productive they are

Respect culture
to encourage an environment of inclusion, where everyone feels valued and free to be open about their diversity

Risk mitigation
to prevent negative issues, such as discrimination claims, from arising

For more detail, go to:
http://www.aon.com/uk/en/about/careers/diversity/importance.jsp

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