Kishor Harsiani, Strategy & Finance Director at the IBC Buying Group, discusses diversity in the merchant industry and the need to consider it in the context of wider industry issues.
Towards the end of last year I was invited to take part in a panel discussion on diversity in the merchant industry by the Builders’ Merchants Federation. Held during UK Construction Week, the fascinating discussion brought together representatives from merchants, suppliers and industry organisations to consider the collective challenges we face as we try to make the industry more diverse.
The wide-ranging discussion covered areas including mental health, inclusiveness and the need to attract the next generation of merchants, as well as how to attract more women into an industry where the workforce is still more than 90% male.
Everyone agreed that the industry needs to diversify, but also acknowledged that, for many companies, the issue is not very high on their agenda as they focus on more fundamental business issues.
Diversity has to be about more than just gender or race, and it can’t be a ‘box ticking’ exercise or about filling a percentage quota – whatever else happens, the best candidate must be the one who gets the job, otherwise the company as a whole will suffer.
While the merchant sector has made great improvements in the area of gender diversity in recent years, there’s still a long way to go. Most of the women employed at merchants still work in what are considered traditional ‘female’ roles such as marketing, accounts or HR – it’s comparatively rare to see a female branch manager, though some merchants have recruited them with success.
It’s also important to consider diversity within the wider context and requirements of the business as a whole – taking into account the available recruitment pool and the needs of the business. It’s not enough just to say ‘we must employ a female driver’, for example, since certain skills are scarce irrespective of gender. Diversity is also arguably easier to implement in large cities than in rural towns – not everywhere across the UK is as diverse as London or Manchester.
If we are really going to tackle the root causes of diversity, then we have to engage with schools, training colleges and universities, to educate them about the many and varied careers available in merchanting and make the options attractive compared to other ‘hip industries’. This is a challenge.
Put simply, the onus is on companies to attract more diverse people – and if that’s something a business is struggling with, then first and foremost they have to ask why, and consider what they might be doing incorrectly.
How do we compete with other industries? Competitive packages help, but work life balance, training and structured career paths are all high on the millennial agenda.
Fundamentally, I believe that you have to challenge people’s expectations. Employing people from different sectors, genders, cultures and backgrounds brings with it diversity of thinking – something that will strengthen the core of any business.
Before moving into the construction sector I spent many years working in the mining industry, and during that time I found most of my genuine insights in terms of innovation came when I looked outside and examined other industries – those who were far more advanced than us in many different ways.
We can look outside the merchant industry at how other sectors have made improvements, and see how their thinking can be harnessed and adapted for all our benefit. Bringing in people from outside merchanting might be seen as a risk in terms of their lack of industry knowledge, but that knowledge can be taught, and their different experiences and insights can complement yours, helping to take your business to the next level. The aptitude must be there, and the question is ‘are the interviewers trained to see this?’ An interviewer’s checklist is often not structured to highlight a diverse, non-industry person.
So, diversity comes in a number of different guises – and we must all guard against the unconscious bias in our industry that thinks construction-related issues can only be sorted out using construction-related experience. Sometimes you really do have to think outside the box. This is where our industry bodies and organisations have, in my opinion, a bigger role to play in encouraging collaboration with other industries to share knowledge and ideas both ways.
But to truly achieve diversity, you also have to ensure that everyone in the business buys into the idea and why it is important. After all, you can put all the necessary recruitment policies in place to encourage diversity, but if people don’t understand why they matter and don’t engage with them, then they won’t be implemented properly.
This is a problem that can be seen time and again in health and safety. Companies introduce new safety policies, but unless the people who are tasked with following them understand why they are important, they won’t follow them, or will be tempted to take shortcuts.
IBC tackles this risk within its own business using the ‘4H’ model – a change management concept that helps change behaviours by winning hearts and minds. The 4H model asserts that in order to get to the hands (i.e. encouraging people to carry out certain actions or behaviours), you have to go via the head (by informing them what needs to be done), but to get to the head, you first have to go via the heart (by helping people understand exactly why that change is so important, and the benefits it will bring to them and their business). Once you achieve that, then you will see long-term, focused action towards the long-term goal of making diversity a reality across the merchant sector.
Finding the right balance between diversity and business is undoubtedly challenging, but the industry is beginning to actively embrace the concept, and taking the first steps towards creating a more diverse workforce to the benefit of all involved.