Creating an equal opportunities officer within your organisation is the first step towards ensuring that diversity proves a positive force in your workplace, says Christine Hayhurst

Ron Atkinson’s much publicised comment, made in the wake of Chelsea’s first leg defeat against Monaco, emphasises just how far we still need to travel down the road to diversity. Big Ron may well be “devastated and very sorry” for his remarks - and rightly so - but it’s not just among football pundits that discrimination exists.
Racial prejudice is still felt in a number of areas of employment practice. You don’t have to search too hard to find examples either, whether it’s during recruitment, selection or promotion, or even in circumstances involving training and development, redundancy and retirement.
The UK is a vibrant, cosmopolitan society, but how representative of it is your workforce? Do some groups stand a better chance of promotion than others? And what about older staff members? Age discrimination can also hinder diversity. Could you honestly say you’d give equal consideration to an older candidate with the same qualifications as someone younger?
So what can you do to create equal opportunities for all? A good starting place is to appoint an individual to write and implement a policy to deal with issues on a day-to-day basis. You need to make sure that discrimination is taken seriously and the best way to do this is to create a specific role. After all, financial responsibilities are not shared on an ad hoc basis - they are the remit of the financial director and, because of this, great importance is attached to them. In the same way, if people realise that an ‘equal opportunities officer’ exists, they will quickly accept the need to deal with any issues of discrimination.
Identifying where discrimination might take place is the first step to encouraging diversity at work, but it is just part of the equation. It is important to identify not only if discrimination exists but also to recognise the benefits of creating equal opportunities for all staff. Over the past few years, more and more organisations have realised that a mixed workforce is a more dynamic one. Employers who continue to think otherwise are missing out on the substantial and proven business benefits that a good blend of workers can bring to their business - a strengthened pool of candidates and a broader range of skills, improved motivation and a better corporate image, to name just three.
Involve staff in the development of your equal opportunities policy. Set up a working party drawn from representative groups. If possible, this should include union representatives, management, HR, ethnic minorities and the people with disabilities. But, make it clear the group has an aim and is not a special interests lobbying point.
Once the policy is in place, it’s important to provide specific training about discrimination and equal opportunities that covers both your organisation’s policy and the law.
Diversity is a hot issue, so your management and staff must be kept informed about their rights and responsibilities whenever legislation or new company policies are about to come into force. Also, include the equal opportunities policy in information to job applicants.
Test regularly to see if the policy is successful. A policy will be more effective if you create targets that can be monitored and reviewed so set up the systems to capture information and performance indicators to review progress. But do this carefully, because if you begin to introduce positive discrimination, you fall into a dangerous trap.
At a time when skills shortages are growing, whole swathes of the population are overlooked solely on the basis of their differences. The workforce is changing in significant ways. The 2001 Census, for example, showed that the minority ethnic population accounts for almost 8% of the UK population and that, by 2014, there will be more people over 65 in the UK than under 16. Obviously, then, organisations with a diverse work force will be more likely to appeal to a marketplace they reflect.
Remember that age, gender, race, religion or other diversity factors should not matter when making decisions in the workplace. Skills, abilities and potential are what count and if an effective equality policy is used by organisations, discrimination should be minimised.
n Christine Hayhurst is director of professional affairs at the Chartered Management Institute