Opinion: Diversity at work moves up the agenda

The air was thick with idealism this week, not only among the rock aristocracy in Hyde Park, but also in Trieste where 600-odd delegates gathered to hear the great and good of the world's PR industry debate one of the most pressing issues in the world of work: diversity and (its flipside) discrimination.

The event, which PRWeek partnered, was certainly ambitious. The programme tackled diversity in its myriad guises, including gender, faith, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity and, to a lesser extent, age. The programme and line-up of speakers was impressive - orators included EU Commission for Humanitarian Aid's Emma Bonino and exiled Tibetan Buddhist Lobsang Lungrik, and the agenda ranged from gay, bisexual, lesbian and transsexual issues to lessons learned from the break-up of apartheid in South Africa and the Asian tsunami relief effort. There was even an opening message from Desmond Tutu. Running alongside the build-up to G8 and Live 8, emotions ran high and some of the presentations were truly inspiring.

But the cynic in me also detected a disturbing sense of self-congratulation, and an unhealthy desire by some companies to hitch themselves to the latest CSR bandwagon.

Which is probably why I couldn't resist asking the panel I was chairing about their policies on staff with HIV and Aids (who, incidentally, will be protected in the UK from next year under the Disability Rights Act).

It may have been 32 degC outside, but 50 per cent of my panel froze on the spot.

Essentially, the business rationale for diversity appears clear: with a worldwide skills shortage, employers are effectively operating with one hand tied behind their backs if they wilfully narrow the pool of available talent. And operating as it does in a global environment, how can the PR industry feel confident in doing business if it can't connect with its diverse target audiences?

But I am concerned that, even if the idealism engendered by this brave event does not dissipate, employers will pick and choose the aspects of diversity that best fit their CSR profile, leaving more difficult issues to one side.

The practical outcome of the conference is still unclear. The most concrete result is likely to be a clearer emphasis on diversity in international PR curricula. And here in the UK, the CIPR is launching its diversity policy on 13 July.

Let's hope that the enthusiasm of the moment leads to real and lasting change.

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