2021 has been a torrid year, but business must keep delivering for society


LET me start this week’s column with a caveat. This was written after the welcome news that an agreement had been reached on the Northern Ireland Protocol, but before any real decision was made on the all-important trade deal. So, for anyone expecting some up-to-the minute Brexit analysis, I can only apologise because anything I wrote would be quickly out of date.

Instead, I want to take a look at another important issue – diversity and inclusion – something that runs as a key strand throughout the CBI’s work. December is typically a time to take stock. Many of us will be evaluating what went well – or not so well – during the year. This honest self-appraisal is invaluable in helping us to set realistic goals for the 12 months ahead.

In that respect, 2020 has been a year like any other. We will all have successes and failures to look back upon and learn from. Yet in so many other ways, 2020 has been a year unlike any other we have seen before.

No doubt, businesses across Northern Ireland will be delighted to see the back of a year which has served up unprecedented challenges. But before we say ‘good riddance’ to 2020, it is important to recognise the positives which business can take even from a year spent operating in the shadow of a pandemic.

Firstly, Northern Ireland businesses have once again demonstrated their remarkable agility, creativity, and dogged determination to succeed through the ways in which they have adapted to this crisis. Stories of ingenuity abound as firms have revamped working methods, remodelled production, and implemented new routes to market. Local business leaders can be proud of the work they have done to safeguard futures and livelihoods.

This has resulted in many benefits for employees, too. For those able to work from home, flexible working patterns have improved people’s work-life balance, while also benefitting the environment.

Companies have taken their duty of care toward employees ever more seriously during this time. There has been an extra focus on workers’ mental health and wellbeing. Firms have demonstrated a real willingness to allow staff the flexibility they need to perform their roles alongside their individual home and family commitments.

This focus on the individual has been welcome, and there are signs that it will continue. But it can go further, too. Much further.

You may have seen that the CBI recently held a huge diversity and inclusion conference. It was on a scale that befits the seriousness of the issue, and the scale of the challenge that business, and society, must rise to. It also featured some incredible speakers, tackling subjects such as racial inequality, pay gap reporting, fostering a culture of belonging . . . the list goes on. Two days of experts from the very top echelons of business, outlining their own commitments to building a truly inclusive world of work in the aftermath of Covid-19.

Their example is one we can all follow. While much of the focus for businesses in Northern Ireland right now is on survival, this week’s vaccine approval means there is genuine light at the end of the tunnel – and some of the focus can shift towards building back better. Building back fairer.

Diversity works, too. No matter where you look, there’s so much hard, quantifiable evidence showing that diverse businesses are more profitable, more innovative, and more competitive. Firms with the lowest gender and ethnic diversity in their executive teams are 27 per cent less likely to be profitable. In the case of ethnic and cultural diversity, we know top-quartile companies outperform those in the bottom quartile by 36 per cent in profitability. And when employees feel included in the workplace their ability to innovate increases by 83 per cent.

In short, it’s not just the right thing to do – it’s good business. And in an environment so uncertain, so hard-hit by Covid and preparing for a new trading relationship with the EU, no business can afford to miss out.

I also think the message about more inclusive workplaces really hits home in Northern Ireland. We can’t deny that we have an unfortunate legacy of division and intolerance. Fortunately, thanks to the extraordinary work of people from all communities, that legacy has largely been consigned to the past – in its place we have a more open, tolerant, and prosperous Northern Ireland.

But although great progress has been made, we must also face the fact that even today some people still feel excluded at work, school or other social arenas because of their age, their sex, their sexual orientation, race, religion and more.

While the work towards delivering true diversity, inclusion and tolerance never stops, current and future generations are right to demand more of our efforts in every walk of life. In Northern Ireland we must learn lessons from previous achievements and experiences and show the same commitment to delivering positive change as we did in the 1980s and 90s.

:: Angela McGowan is CBI Northern Ireland director


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