A new report out this week suggests UK industry is not playing fair when it comes to employing those from ethnic minorities - and losing talent as a result.

Liz Hamson takes a look at what’s happening in food retail to see whether there is potential to play a smarter game

The Grocer asked a few of the 500 graduates who attended last month’s ACDiversity Careers Fair what they think of supermarket recruitment policies - and whether they would have approached the stand of a retailer - or manufacturer - if they had been represented. Many have a positive impression of the industry from the shopfloor. But they also express deep concerns about what is happening higher up.

Shirley Blake is an accountant looking for a new job in a bigger company. Had a supermarket been represented at the fair, she would have approached its stand. “My impressions of supermarkets are that they are a lot more diverse whereas a few years back they weren’t. I wanted a career in Tesco, having started as a Saturday girl. There were opportunities in accounts but I didn’t feel I would be given scope to develop.”

Mike Chimbaira is studying for his MBA and is looking for a job at a small consulting firm. “Walking into a supermarket, I don’t see it as a problem, but there’s institutional racism in the whole British employment system. If my name was David Carter, I’d get a call back. The barriers that were there in the past are still there today. What has changed? Why should I apply to Tesco when there are more proactive employers out there?”

Maximilla Ikapel has just finished her Masters degree in International Business and Management. “I don’t think supermarkets encourage people from the ethnic minorities at all. They don’t advertise the better jobs - just the manual ones. That’s bad. To me, they could be getting people with really good qualifications. They should be more proactive. They’re lagging behind.”

John Matthews
Matthews is a maths teacher looking for a career change. “My impression is good based on the faces you see on the shopfloor, but in the boardroom and at management level they are not proactive enough. I worked at Sainsbury. I was the only black person there. Colleagues tried to be friendly, but I could tell it wasn’t genuine.”

Mike is gregarious, hard-working, well-educated and ambitious - the ideal prospective employee. But he is finding it tough to take the next step on the career ladder.

The reason, he says, is that he is black: “There is institutional racism in the whole British employment system.”

An insidious prejudice that’s hard to detect and even harder to eliminate arguably continues to play a huge role in ethnic minority recruitment in the UK.

According to the first annual report published by the government task force on ethnic minority employment this week, minorities are twice as likely to be unemployed as the general population: 59.4% are employed compared with 74.9% of the population as a whole, earning £347 a week on average against £376.

But how serious an issue is it in food retailing and is positive discrimination the answer? While the supermarket chains have led the high street in widening the net to employ more older staff as well as ethnic minorities, retailers are not immune from criticism.

There is very little data to show how many people from ethnic minorities are employed in head offices, while it is self-evident that in the boardroom there is virtually no representation.

So it is no surprise that graduates such as Mike, who attended a recent careers fair in London run by education charity African Caribbean Diversity, think it has an image problem (see left).

Not everyone agrees. David Southwell, director of communications at the British Retail Consortium, is adamant that food retailing is no worse than any other industry. On the shop floor “it is almost a non-issue” he asserts, claiming that there are better career prospects in retail than any other industry. “There is no other sector where you can go in at 16 and end up running the company.”

The industry may have been a victim of its own success, he says. “Because it is so ethnically diverse at non-director level, there is a simple assumption that this should be reflected upwards.”

What scant evidence there is shows that the supermarkets have made progress. Sainsbury saw an increase in the number of ethnic minority staff from 11.9% in 2002 to 13.1% in 2003. Compare that with the 8% of the population that comes from ethnic minorities. It has a diversity management section on its internal web site developed to help stores attract ethnic minority groups and raise awareness of Sainsbury as a diverse employer.

A spokeswoman says: “Sainsbury aims to have a workforce representative of the cultural mix of society. On a local level, we aim for our workforce to be representative of the ethnic mix of the local area.” But this strong representation is not apparent at more senior level, which raises uneasy questions about how far the welcome to appropriately qualified people from ethnic communities really extends.

Not a single supermarket or food and drink manufacturer was represented at ACDiversity’s eighth careers fair. The organisation’s chairwoman Brenda King is disappointed at the poor industry turnout and questions its commitment to recruiting ethnic minority staff.

“Recruitment practices are geared up to a certain type of person so it’s hardly surprising that type of person comes through.” Acknowledging that until there is “critical mass” of ethnic minorities in a region, workplaces will continue to lack diversity, she admits there is an inevitable delay as talent filters through to the top.

She adds: “It’s always going to be a hostile environment when only one or two people are represented.”

But she bemoans the lack of monitoring carried out by the multiples.

Peter McLaren-Kennedy of retail sector skills council Skillsmart agrees there is a general reluctance to look into the issue.

“People are wary of exploring it too deeply,” he says. “But this is absolutely an issue and we need to be more conscious of it. Supermarkets are seen as representative of retail as a whole.

“If they aren’t perceived as good places to work, whether they have a good reputation in every other sense is neither here nor there.”

In the era of corporate social responsibility, recruitment practices are going to come under increasing scrutiny.

If not for moral reasons, employers should improve their practices for commercial reasons, says McLaren-Kennedy. He echoes King’s view that a large talent pool is needlessly being ignored and that proactive discrimination is necessary. “One does have to be proactive about this to get the ball rolling.”

Those that feel they’re doing enough already or are reluctant to implement positive discrimination could at least do more to promote the industry more widely, suggests Southwell. Once they’ve enticed more new recruits through the door, they need to do more to keep them, he adds, alluding to the staff retention issue (see Shopfloor recruitment survey, p42).

Either way, ethnic diversity makes sound business sense, says Petra Cook, head of policy at the Chartered Management Institute. “More and more organisations are realising that a mixed workforce is a successful one. Employers that think otherwise are missing out on the substantial and proven business benefits.

“Put simply, skills, abilities and potential are what should count.”

Not whether someone like Mike’s face fits - or not.