Lack of diverse and representative profession
Examples below should be read in conjunction with the Risk Outlook 2017/18
Senior partner makes abusive and discriminatory comments
The following case illustrates how discriminatory behaviours can continue and potentially spread in a firm if employees feel unable or afraid to speak up.
Mrs A worked for a ten-partner law firm. Soon after joining, she noticed discriminatory behaviours from four partners of the firm.
During a recruitment drive, she overheard the partners 'ranking' female applicants by their physical appearance. In another instance, she overheard offensive comments about a gay colleague. She also observed many instances of disrespectful behaviour towards female colleagues, which were never evident in their interactions with male colleagues.
The firm's policy was to raise concerns with the HR partner, but Mrs A was reluctant to do this as he was one of the partners involved. There were no policies advising staff on how to proceed in such situations. She considered reporting to a different partner, but a colleague advised this may result in her being treated unfavourably.
This continued for two years. One day, one of the partners involved accidentally forwarded an email to Mrs A. He immediately attempted to recall the message but, unknown to him, the recall failed.
The email contained a series of messages between the partners, in which they made offensive comments about other colleagues based on their gender, race, religious beliefs and sexual orientation.
Mrs A reported anonymously to us, enclosing a printout of the email. When the firm was contacted about the matter, they launched an internal investigation that led to the dismissal of the four partners. The firm implemented better policies on dealing with bullying and harassment, and raising grievances. They also launched a programme to improve the firm's culture.
We are currently investigating the four former partners.
Firm successfully increases ethnic diversity
The following case illustrates practical steps firms can take to understand and improve their diversity.
A senior partner of a law firm was examining the firm's diversity data. He reflected on the diversity of the firm's workforce to that of similar firms in the area, and realised that the firm employed a relatively small proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) solicitors and trainees.
The partner raised this in a meeting where other senior members of the firm were present. He stated that the lack of diversity in the firm may be the result of some characteristic that made the firm less appealing to BAME applicants. Alternatively, it may stem from an unintentional bias in the recruitment process.
The matter was discussed, with everyone agreeing that the firm needed to ensure they recruit and retain the best candidates, regardless of their individual characteristics.
The firm did not have much resource to allocate to this, so they agreed on some practical steps to improve the ethnic diversity of their firm.
They established contact with a larger pool of universities, including former polytechnics, to attract more 'first generation' university students. They also became more active on social media sites, to allow students to approach them easily with any questions they may have about working for the firm.
By widening the pool of potential employees, the firm was able to recruit talented candidates from more diverse backgrounds. It also reflected the local demographics better.
Firm responds to female solicitor's concerns about progression
The following case illustrates how firms can take practical steps to respond to staff feedback about inclusive working.
Mr A was a senior partner in a medium-sized firm. He supervised Mrs B, an associate with the firm.
A position as junior partner became available. Mrs B was a consistently high performer, so Mr A urged her to consider applying.
Mrs B declined. She expressed the concern that the current all-male partners may not take a woman seriously, particularly as she was unable to match the number of hours they spent in the office due to her childcare responsibilities.
Mr A was worried by this. The firm's policy reflected the law around flexible working and allowed employees at all levels of seniority to work flexibly, but Mr A was aware there was disconnect between the policy and what seemed to be culturally acceptable. He also appreciated that the lack of a female role model at partner level might affect how younger female employees visualised a career path in the firm.
Mr A shared his concerns with the managing partner. He highlighted that the firm was failing to recognise and respond to their employees' needs, and this may be why the firm had a high staff turnover at associate level.
The firm conducted an anonymous survey to encourage employees to voice their concerns about working practices and progression. The results revealed a number of concerns, including those raised by Mrs B.
In response, the firm launched a change initiative to embed inclusive working practices into its culture. This included increasing support for flexible and remote working. As a result, the firm saw an improvement in employee commitment and motivation.
Law firm tries something different to support solicitor with a disability
The following case illustrates practical steps firms can take to be more inclusive of solicitors with disabilities, and how this can provide a commercial advantage.
A small law firm received an application from a solicitor who was a wheelchair user. The applicant looked promising on paper. However, the recruiting manager was reluctant to invite him for interview as the office had no wheelchair access.
The recruiting manager raised the matter with a partner of the firm, who suggested the applicant could be interviewed in a local café. This was an unusual move for the firm, but they decided to trial it as the applicant appeared particularly promising.
The interview went very well and the firm made an offer. They discussed the adjustments that were required with the applicant, and these were made over the next month.
After this positive experience, the firm decided to use their website to promote themselves as a disability-friendly organisation, for both employees and prospective clients.
They highlighted their now easy-access premises, and took a more active role in encouraging applications from solicitors with disabilities. The firm also started offering further support to disabled clients. This included offering to meet clients at locations that are convenient to them, rather than expecting them to come into the firm's offices.
This proved to be successful, with the firm seeing an increase in client numbers.
This is an example of the business benefits many organisations have realised by implementing good diversity and inclusion practices.