Equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) continues to be at the forefront of discussions when assessing challenges faced by the housing sector and the need to do better. Since the summer of 2020, and the spotlight that the Black Lives Matter movement shone on this area, there has been a renewed focus on improving ED&I within the sector. At Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP we’ve had the opportunity to speak at and attend different ED&I events, including events hosted by the Housing Diversity Network. These have explored developing inclusive models of governance and how your governance frameworks can be a tool to drive a transformational and progressive ED&I culture.
The latest National Housing Federation Code of Governance (the New NHF Code), published in November 2020, contains a greater emphasis on ED&I. The New NHF Code bolsters ED&I requirements and, amongst other things, requires boards to have an active commitment to achieving ED&I in all of the organisation’s activities, having policies and statements in place to meaningfully demonstrate the organisation’s ED&I commitment and for boards to regularly consider and define the culture and behaviours that will best enable the organisation to deliver its mission and values.
As part of our continued work in, and commitment to, this area we have partnered with the Housing Diversity Network to develop a template ED&I policy. Alongside complying with your legal and regulatory requirements (including the New NHF Code), it includes best practice requirements and guidance from us on what you should consider including. The template policy is a useful ED&I aid, aimed at facilitating discussion and debate within housing associations and putting in place a policy that meaningfully demonstrates the organisation’s commitment to ED&I. We also hope that the template ED&I policy will enable housing providers to take a step forward when it comes to formulating your wider ED&I strategies.
We recognise that ED&I is not a tick box exercise and requires a meaningful ongoing commitment in order to truly embed an equal, diverse and inclusive culture. A policy is not action. Whilst a policy and/or a strategy is important, it should only be the starting point for your ED&I practices. These need to be living documents and having the right culture helps to support this.
As the famous saying goes, 'culture eats strategy for breakfast', meaning no matter how strong your policy or strategy is, you need a powerful and empowering culture which is shared by all members of your organisation to implement and drive the policies, plans and strategies in a meaningful way. The New NHF Code reflects this by emphasising the need for organisations and their boards to set a positive culture to help the organisation meet its ED&I objectives.
ED&I and driving cultural change cannot be owned by one person or department. For real change, everyone in the organisation, from the Board and senior leadership team through to staff at all levels, must buy into it and see their role in fostering your organisation’s culture.
As part of this, organisations need to understand the differences between staff experiences and how those experiences feed into the changes that need to be made. Having a diverse organisation means differences exist, but this is not enough; an inclusive workplace takes this forward to ensure people from all backgrounds feel valued. Those with direct lived experiences, with different backgrounds or perspectives, should have the opportunity to feed into your organisational structure. Having diversity within an organisation does not naturally lead to having an inclusive workplace and this is where having the right culture is all the more important.
Mushtaq Khan, Chief Executive Officer at the Housing Diversity Network, shared his thoughts based on his work in engaging with clients in the housing sector on their equality, diversity and inclusion needs and the challenges they see when working with clients to embed ED&I culture:
"One of the biggest issues that we come across is that organisations see ED&I as a problem to solve rather than a journey that they’re on. That means that they think that they can roll their sleeves up, produce an action plan, implement it, and hey presto it’s done. We think that being good at EDI is about managing the journey that you’re on, making sure that you’re looking at the map and planning the route. The template policy is a mark on the map, and culture is about planning your route. You can’t use one without knowing about the other."
Recent headline grabbing news from the wider third sector offers a stark warning that even a well-established, high-profile organisation such as the The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) can have problems getting their ED&I culture right.
Damaging report findings resulted in the NCVO releasing a public statement admitting it had got its ED&I culture wrong and that it was a “structurally racist organisation and that the same is true for sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and disablism” after an independent report found that “bullying and harassment were frequently targeted around protected characteristics”. The incidents were found to be “pervasive and systemic, indicative of a culture where overt oppression is allowed to continue with impunity”. This is a shocking public statement to make following an equally shocking report and demonstrates that, if you don’t get your culture right, the consequences can be dire including reputational damage, public scrutiny and regulatory scrutiny, not to mention any disciplinary fallouts.
Such serious failures in culture may also suggest governance weaknesses where policies are not being followed, failures in reporting channels and accountability frameworks, a lack of understanding and respect for legal obligations to staff and failures to manage risk. The Regulator of Social Housing has often discussed the reputational risk that housing associations must manage. Its most recent Sector Risk Profile stated: “[a]s organisations with a social purpose, the majority of which have charitable status, providers’ actions will continue to be scrutinised by a range of stakeholders such as tenants, local communities, national and local government, lenders, other regulators and the media.”
As part of good governance, housing associations must proactively manage the risks of adverse external perceptions and criticisms relating to ED&I failures. Especially in today’s environment, the heightened awareness around these issues can cause serious reputational fallouts.
A robust ED&I policy and strategy should help to build the foundations for a positive ED&I culture in your organisation. Your policy can be a tool to turn these words into actions which will help foster this culture.
For example, consider how your policy will be actioned on a day-to-day basis; is it part of your ongoing business? Consider forming a list of the intentions set out in your policy and discussing with members of your organisation how you can achieve these. It will also be important to ensure that they are regularly discussed throughout your organisation, including at board level, management level and staff groups.
The wider world continues to grapple with the inequalities we face in society and the housing sector recognises its moral obligation to do better. There is no silver bullet when it comes to ED&I; it isn’t a one-time problem to solve, which is why creating a transformational and progressive ED&I culture is all the more important.
Laying the foundations for an inclusive culture will require developing an effective ED&I policy and strategy that meaningfully demonstrate your organisation’s commitment. It is clear that housing associations will need to get this right as part of their governance arrangements and to demonstrate compliance with the New NHF Code. So, whilst culture may eat strategy for breakfast, organisations will need both to succeed.
If you’d like to find out more about the template policy then please do get in touch with Sharon Thandi, another member of the Penningtons Manches Cooper Housing Corporate and Governance Team, or Mushtaq Khan.
A version of this article was first published in Inside Housing in June 2021