Diversity in the workplace – the benefits and the challenges

3 March 2020
Charlie McHugh, Head of Client Insight at Halborns Limited, the BMF’s exclusive law and HR partner, takes a closer look.

BMF Intelligent Employment PlusTake a glimpse at almost any merchant’s website and you’ll notice things like ‘family values’, ‘integrity’, ‘trusted’, ‘reliable’ - all words you’d associate with the fantastic industry we’re a part of. One word however, is often conspicuous in its absence – diversity.

Not just the well-documented gender disparity (women make up just 15.65% of employees in our sector)1, but rather diversity across the full spectrum of characteristics (age, race, sexuality, disability etc.). Whilst diversity statistics on these issues are hard to come by, it is nevertheless very clear that middle-aged white men are still over-represented in our sector.

You may well ask, ‘why does this matter?’

The answer is that it matters because improving the diversity of your workforce will pay dividends for your business, whilst not doing so could expose you to some potentially sticky legal issues. Here are some examples:

Diversity improves problem-solving
– a group of people from a wide range of backgrounds solve problems faster than groups with the same or similar backgrounds.2 If your business culture promotes creativity, you’re more likely to come out the other side of challenges sooner, with a better solution to boot!

Diversity improves reputation
– not just because diverse recruiting looks good…but because it better connects your business to the wider community in which you operate. A more diverse workforce can draw on wider experiences to better understand the needs of your customers and deliver a higher standard of service. You never know, it might also help you tap into a more diverse customer base as well…

Here’s the kicker…diversity improves your bottom line – you read that right! More diverse businesses are more profitable.3 They’re able to fish in wider pools to attract, hire and retain top talent (reducing costs from employee churn), utilise that talent to drive more innovative strategies and make better business decisions. In fact, they’ll make better decisions 87% of the time.4

How can things get a little tricky? In a word, banter. It’s something that will crop up in our advice to BMF members on an almost daily basis. We’ve seen everything from the daft, the stupid and the downright racist. Outside of our own experience, comments like “baby farmer” directed at an employee returning from maternity leave, recently resulted in a successful sex discrimination claim.5 It’s worth also remembering that compensation for discrimination claims is unlimited, making potential awards hugely costly should an issue reach tribunal. 2018/19 saw awards of over £30,000 and £20,000 for race and sex discrimination respectively.6

Diversity and inclusion play their part here. It’s only natural that male-dominated teams will be laden with male-dominated banter. But what someone might be able to say ‘as a laugh’ to their white, middle-aged, male colleague, could quite easily meet the relatively low bar for a harassment claim by creating an intimidating or offensive environment for someone who doesn’t fit that description.

We’ll all have our own examples of things we’ve seen in the workplace that were offensive or discriminatory, but which have been brushed aside with ‘it’s only banter’. By way of illustration, 59% of people have overheard the word ‘gay’ used as an insult at work.7 Around 3% of the UK population identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or other (LGBT+)8. When you consider members of the BMF employ over 130,000 people, those statistics would suggest that at least 3,000 employees within the sector identify as LGBT+. If that was you and you heard words like ‘gay’ being thrown around as an insult or ‘banter’, would you feel part of a tolerant, inclusive and diverse team?

Whilst sexuality is just one example of the nine characteristics protected by the Equality Act, it does highlight the ease at which groups with similar backgrounds can show a lack of understanding of the sensitivities of minority groups. While some of this might be generational, an industry actively trying to engage more young people can’t fall back on this excuse and needs to be acutely aware of what the younger generation now deem appropriate. You might think ‘love’, ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’ is a term of endearment, but to a young, enthusiastic female new-starter in your business, this could be patronising and a repeated reminder that the industry is still primarily a male stomping ground.

So what can you be doing? Here’s a few ideas:

Equal opportunities – a great policy doesn’t need to be long or complex. It can be straight-talking and succinct while still setting out your commitment to an inclusive workplace. The aim is to raise awareness of the culture and environment you want to build and make sure everyone is on the same page should a conflict arise. You’ll need to apply your policy consistently and deal with any breaches under your disciplinary procedure.

Better Banter – appropriate training will increase understanding and sensitivity within your teams about what is and isn’t acceptable, the risks of discrimination and harassment claims and the potential liability that follows if a claim does arise. Regular training (and keeping a record of it, along with how you’ve communicated your policy within the business) can demonstrate to a tribunal that you’ve taken ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent discrimination and that any potential claim should be the responsibility of the individual in question and not your business. If you’re interested in Better Banter training, click here to view our upcoming courses.

Reporting lines – an anonymous helpline is a great solution to encourage employees to raise concerns about inappropriate behaviour or language in the workplace. If it’s happening, you need to know about it. Whilst a dedicated helpline might be more appropriate for bigger businesses, smaller teams can nominate an ‘inclusion ambassador’ or someone in the business to be the go-to person should concerns need to be raised.

Support – securing straight-talking, commercial advice at the outset of any challenge involving discrimination or harassment is hugely important. It allows you to act quickly, manage risk and reach an outcome that is right for your business. It’ll help you minimise reputational damage, reduce time and resources spent on the issue, and the costs associated with defending a claim. If you don’t have something in place already, the BMF Intelligent Employment Plus service might be your answer.

The road to a more diverse sector is undoubtedly a long and challenging one. There will be front runners, and those lagging behind the pack. But the journey’s end shouldn’t be simply ticking a box to improve the look of the next corporate report. It should be because we want to improve and grow our businesses, to maximise the opportunities available to those we employ, and to improve the service to our customers.

For more information on how BMF Intelligent Employment Plus can work for your business, get in touch at [email protected] or call 0115 718 0333.

You can also view the latest information about our Diversity in Merchanting Round Table click here


1 BMF Remuneration Survey 2019
2 Harvard Business Review, 2017 –
Teams solve problems faster when they’re more cognitively diverse 
3 McKinsey & Company, 2012 –
Is there a payoff from top team diversity?
4 Forbes, 2017 –
New research: diversity + inclusion = better decision making at work
Miss L Hayman v Pall-Ex Ltd and Others 2601913/16
Government tribunal statistics April-June 2019
LGBT+ Survey: construction’s slow progress laid bare
Office for National Statistics – Sexual Orientation UK dataset


This article first appeared in the February 2020 edition of Builders' Merchants Journal (BMJ)