Former education secretary urges business leaders to look beyond obvious differences, and rethink how they treat employees who need extra support

David Blunkett, the former Labour MP and Cabinet member under Tony Blair, has challenged HR and global mobility professionals, and business leaders, to rethink and broaden their attitudes to diversity and inclusion (D&I).

Speaking at last week’s RES Forum Symposium 2016, Lord Blunkett said widespread attitudinal change is needed – at work and in wider society – to move the D&I agenda forward. “People need to start thinking about others and the way that they would want to be treated. Try to envisage what will make things easier or more difficult – and what would be excruciatingly embarrassing,” he said, citing numerous times when well-meaning passers-by had helped him to cross the road, whether he wanted to or not.

Ill-thought-out good intentions can be damaging at work, too. When Labour was set to win the general election in 1997, Lord Blunkett recalled, the department for education prepared for his appointment as education secretary by installing a machine that converted digital documents to Braille. “But it wasn’t readable,” he said. “It was outputting the Braille in Swedish because that’s where the machine had come from and its settings hadn’t been changed.”

HR and business leaders therefore need to not only welcome people with differences – whether that’s disabilities, background, ethnicity or education – but also be informed about, and able to offer, vital support systems, such as using Access to Work funding or making adjustments for disabled workers, he said. “You have to listen to what the person says they want and what they think will work.”

Offering flexible working is crucial too, Lord Blunkett added: “It’s not only good for gender equality, it’s good for changing men, too. We have to get men thinking about what’s happening at home and share that, because it changes how they view the job.”

Referring to Jeremy Corbyn’s comments that after-work drinking cultures are unfair on working mothers, he said: “I don’t necessarily want to go to the pub after work, and if I do, I want to go with friends – who aren’t necessarily workmates. I don’t expect my wife would welcome me home if I’ve been out drinking and she’s been making the supper.”

A truly inclusive workplace is one that embraces people who’ve faced challenges in their lives and met them head on, said Lord Blunkett: “That could be someone with a disability who has fought to get trained and present themselves for interview – they have that resilience that people are so desperately seeking. Real resilience is being a single parent and living in a high-rise flat with four children and working two jobs. People [in business] who talk about resilience have no idea what it means.”

Another emerging D&I challenge is helping people deal with the rapid pace of change, he said. While an elite group of global players are comfortable with change, organisations need to do more to support workers on the front line. “If people are fearful and don’t see that change is beneficial for them, they are bound to resist it. We have to be able to persuade people that there are ways to protect their interests by engaging with change itself.”

Ultimately, said Lord Blunkett, D&I “isn’t a soft underbelly agenda – about doing something good out of morality – it’s a good economic agenda. It’s a hard-headed agenda for businesses around leadership skills and reinforcing team working, which are fundamental to people wanting to do their job, being engaged and contributing well.”