Top Employer Awards 2023: “A shift from awareness to action”

Salma Shah, one of the judges for this year’s awards, talks about recent trends in diversity and inclusion – and what makes an award-winner.

Salma Shah


“I think there’s been a shift from awareness to action,” Salma Shah, one of the judges for WM People’s Top Employer Awards 2023, says of the past year.

Shah, who runs a coaching and training business, has seen an increasing number of employers putting diversity and inclusion (D&I) measures in place. More companies have sought her expertise in training managers in coaching, with a focus on diversity issues. “[Companies are saying]: ‘Okay, we’ve been talking about this a lot. Now, what can we actually do to take action?’ ”

WM People,’s parent company, holds its Top Employer Awards every year to celebrate the UK’s best workplaces. This year’s ceremony on 7 February will include categories such as Best for Diversity & Inclusion, Best for Family Support, Best for Women’s Career Progression, and Best for Older Workers.

Shah, who has worked on D&I for several years, says the momentum around this particular issue has been growing for some time and the people who work on it have steadily become more experienced. Over the past year, UK employers in several sectors have also faced worker shortages, spurring them to focus even more on attracting and keeping good staff.

“We’ve got a cost–of-living crisis, a buoyant job market, and people who are burnt out. So organisations have got to work hard to retain their best talent,” she says.

Looking beyond one-off workshops

When judging this year’s awards, Shah says she looked for employers whose initiatives were properly embedded in the workplace, not just one-off workshops or knee-jerk reactions. She wanted to see employers that had staff wellbeing formally set out in their policies and deeply integrated into their culture, in order to create a true impact.

“I looked at…How thorough is this? How deep is this? How joined-up is this?” she says. “I was trying to look beyond the tick-box of: ‘We did this seminar for two hours.’ I was trying to see if there’s a strategy behind this.”

Shah also took an intersectional approach, to see if employers had factored in that someone might belong to more than one minority or face more than one challenge at the same time. For example, a staff member might be both an older worker and also from a racial minority.

I’m looking for an intersectional lens in everything, in every award.

“I’m looking for an intersectional lens in everything, in every award,” says Shah, who champions this approach in her own coaching. “If it’s an award for women’s career progression…does [the entrant] cover all ages of women? Does it cover all races of women?”

With all aspects of workplace diversity, Shah believes that we must “fix the system”, rather than force individuals to try and fit into a system that simply doesn’t work for them.

Class diversity – the next frontier for employers

During her years working on D&I, Shah has seen different trends arise. For example, employers’ efforts to improve racial diversity have now been in the spotlight for some years. Over the past year, the need to retain older employees and boost age diversity has also gained more attention, alongside ongoing conversations about racial diversity.

Shah hopes the next frontier will be class diversity in workplaces. Several UK studies have shown that people from working-class backgrounds are under-represented in influential sectors such as politics, journalism, finance, and advertising. The proportion of MPs who went to private school is four times that of the general population, according to 2019 data. Almost half (49%) of people in senior roles in finance are from a “professional background”, versus 37% of the overall working population, a survey found this year.

Class diversity can be hard to track, as people define their social class in different ways. It can also be easier for employees to “mask” their social class, if they feel they are in a minority at work, compared with more visible characteristics such as sex or race.

“I really want to bang the drum about this because when we talk about D&I, we have to look at it from the lens of intersectionality…So I believe that social class is a really powerful debate,” Shah says.

“Just because it’s hard, that doesn’t mean we should shy away from it.”

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