John Lewis criticised for lack of diversity in top ranks

The lack of diversity in the management ranks at the high-street favourite John Lewis has been criticised after it emerged that just six of the retail group’s top 158 UK managers are people of colour.

Of the permanent senior UK managers at the company – which is owned by its staff and runs 50 department stores and the Waitrose supermarket chain – three directors are from an ethnic minority. They are the chairman, Sharon White, who joined in February, the strategy director, Nina Bhatia, who was hired by White, and Bérangère Michel, who is in charge of customer service.

A spokesman for John Lewis said there were three more people of colour in the top ranks but would not name them.

White, who pledged to improve the retailer’s diversity when she took over, so that it better reflected its customers, said: “The John Lewis Partnership was formed with equality for all at its very heart and we know we still have work to do to become a more diverse and inclusive workplace.”

She added that the retailer was having “an open and honest debate” with its staff, who are called partners, to improve the profile of the business.

A member of staff, who did not want to be named, told the Guardian there was a “barrier to get in, a barrier to overcome the underestimation of one’s talents, and once one’s talents are recognised there is a barrier of cronyism which becomes a barrier for progression”.

They said that diversity had worsened after a recent round of redundancies, which had put two senior employees from an ethnic minority background into temporary roles.

John Lewis published its first diversity report, called Be Yourself Always, in January, just two weeks before the arrival of White. It showed that representation of ethnic minorities steadily decreased through the management ranks.

The figures reflect a lack of diversity at a senior level across British business. A February update to the Parker review – a government-backed report into ethnic diversity in the boardrooms of stock market-listed companies – showed that people of colour held only 178, or 6.8%, of 2,625 director positions across the FTSE 350 index.

At John Lewis staff who identified as black in a survey gave a particularly low score to their experience of life working for John Lewis. When asked if they agreed with the question “I feel recognised for my contribution”, a balance of 35% of black workers agreed with the statement – calculated by offsetting negative responses against positive replies. Among counterparts who identified as white, the balance was 53%, according to the internal report seen by the Guardian.

Fewer black and Chinese workers also agreed with the statement “I am treated with fairness and respect” in comparison with their white, mixed-race and Asian counterparts.

Overall, 13.7% of John Lewis workers identify as being from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background, in line with the 14% in the UK’s general population. But those staff members tend to be represented in the lower ranks, with nearly 17% of the group’s lowest paid staff from a minority ethnic background compared with 3% in the top four management levels.

John Lewis said it had commissioned an internal investigation to “understand what’s driving the difference in the proportion of ethnic minority and white senior leaders – and what we can do about it”.

In a letter to staff sent last week in light of the international Black Lives Matter protests, the company said: “We do need to do more – not least in ensuring that our partnership is a place where we truly reflect the communities we serve.”

The letter added: “Actions always speak louder than words. We expect to be measured on the everyday experience of our partners at work.”

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