The utilities sector has repeatedly committed to becoming more diverse and companies are keen to stress they are doing their bit to create a more inclusive workforce. However, concerns have been raised that most are not collecting the data on the ethnic make-up of their current workforce. With no starting point, how can the industry ever know if it has reached its destination?

Energy and utility companies lag behind other sectors of the economy when it comes to diversity, according to the representative ONS Labour Force Survey, January-December 2018. It found that of the 572,000 people employed by the sector and its supply chain, just 5 per cent identify as BAME compared to the 12 per cent average for other sectors. It is also overwhelmingly male – just 17 per cent identify as female compared to the 47 per cent average of other sectors.

Yet despite numerous recruitment initiatives to drive better diversity, many companies simply do not have the most complete information about the ethnic makeup of their workforce, with most relying on their employees to volunteer the data themselves.

Stephen Heidari-Robinson, founder and managing director of consultancy Quartz Associates, is the former energy and water policy advisor to David Cameron. He believes diversity is not being taken seriously as a business issue. For Heidari-Robinson, the key to greater diversity is better data and tracking the ethnic background of people companies are recruiting.

He adds: “Ethnic diversity is an even worse situation than gender diversity because I haven’t yet seen in any standard HR database people actually gathering and retaining the information of what ethnic group employees are. You are not able to analyse who’s doing well in promoting ethnic diversity in the same way you can on gender. When I raise that with people they say it’s ‘sensitive information’. Is gender not sensitive? Is pay not sensitive? They keep all that information in their HR database. Unless you are collecting these details, how are you going to know how you are doing?

“What does not work is if you instantly try to go from zero to a workforce that matches the entire UK population. You could start with gender because 50 per cent on the population is female. It helps that it’s something tangible and obvious. But if you ever want to get going on the ethnic diversity side, you really do need to start tracking and measuring it and work out what’s going on. People must capture this information for their recruitment stats but why they then don’t transfer it through to their HR databases, I don’t know.”

What are the companies doing?

Utility Week contacted a number of companies asking whether they kept data on the backgrounds of their employees, including the largest energy suppliers.

Centrica does not disclose UK-only stats and employees choose whether to share information on their ethnicity. Its latest annual report covering 2019 shows that 12 per cent of its staff across both the UK and North America identified as BAME.

Writing in a blog Centrica chief Chris O’Shea recently outlined how he wants to improve transparency ensuring staff have access to information that shows where and how different groups are represented within the organisation. Additionally the company is running a ‘Count Me In’ campaign to encourage everyone to update their personal information to better understand workforce diversity.

Meanwhile EDF says 4.9 per cent of its workforce is from a BAME background, with a spokesperson adding that its diversity ambitions are based on the average local populations from the 2011 census data.

Ovo Energy confirms it tracks race and ethnicity figures across its business but has not yet published them, with a spokesperson confirming it will do so in December. It has recently hired Alessandro Storer, an inclusion and diversity specialist and co-founder of Diversity Pride, to support and devise a long-term strategy. The spokesperson adds the company has committed to publish the figures at least every six months.

In response to the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd, Octopus Energy announced its staff had undertaken unconscious bias training and that the company had set aside more than £100,000 to fund a secondment to an anti-racist organisation. Despite these measures, the company currently only has information on its leadership team and does not keep records on the ethnic backgrounds of all its staff. A spokesperson said it was looking to incorporate this information in its statistics going forward. In total 13 per cent of its middle and senior leaders identify as BAME.

UK Power Networks is another company which has made some attempt to gain more understanding of its workforce but has only gathered personal background information from around 2,400 of its 6,000-strong workforce which, like Centrica, is on a voluntary basis.

This shows that 85 per cent are white, 7 per cent are Asian or Asian British, 5 per cent are black or black British, 2 per cent are mixed and 1 per cent are Chinese or other. Still, this only accounts for 40 per cent of its workforce. The network operator adds that two years ago, 4.7 per cent of employees identified as BAME, increasing to 5.8 per cent by the end of 2019.

Like others within the sector, UKPN aims to tackle diversity through its methods of recruitment and advertises all roles through Vercida Group – a diversity job board.

Jazz Chaggar, talent acquisition manager, tells Utility Week the job board removes names and personal details from CVs to avoid any unconscious bias for its trainee programmes.

“Trained diversity and inclusion champions are present at selection interviews and peer comparison reviews”, says Chaggar.

She adds that overall the company has increased BAME recruitment from 12.5 per cent in 2018 to 16 per cent in 2019.

However while more complete data will help companies keep track of the diversity of their workforces, there is the matter of privacy. Not all employees will be happy to share this kind of data on employment and questions are raised as to whether it is reasonable for employers to force their staff to disclose this information. SSE says it is acutely aware of this.

Rosie MacRae, SSE’s inclusion, education and employability manager, says: “Our business benefits greatly from having a wide range of knowledge, experience and perspectives feeding into our everyday decisions. It’s the diverse mix in our people that helps us realise these benefits.

“Sharing diversity information is voluntary – as it is sensitive personal data – but we encourage people to contribute so that we can test more fully whether the workplace facilities, policies and benefits we offer are in line with the diverse needs of all our employees.

“Some examples of this have included offering quiet rooms for prayer, providing fully accessible facilities and adopting our Working Differently programme which helps employees with their work/life balance.”

Alternative approaches

There are other ways in which the sector is tackling the diversity issue.

Ofgem chief executive Jonathan Brearley points to the regulator’s diversity and inclusion strategy, which included aspirational targets and holding itself to account for progress.

In addition to better transparency, Centrica’s O’Shea revealed plans for the senior leadership team to host “listening sessions” with black employees to understand more about the issues that need tackling. The company is also asking all staff to complete an ethnicity survey to develop a deeper level of understanding and perspectives on racial diversity across the organisation.

Louise Parry, director of people and organisational development at the Energy and Utility Skills Partnership (EUSP), says creating sector role models is key to attracting talent and improving diversity. Furthermore, Parry argues that engaging the white, male-dominated workforce will help bring about quicker changes in attitude towards diversity, helping to create a more inclusive workforce.

While there is no silver bullet to tackle the issue of diversity, collecting more data on exactly who is working for individual organisations is key to ensuring the workforce is more representative of the community it serves.

As Heidari-Robinson observes: “If you can’t track what’s happening, then how can you know how you’re doing?”

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