22 August 2002
The London Fire Brigade's recent issue over sourcing equipment for ethnic minorities has raised some interesting challenges for purchasers. David Arminas explains why
Moves by the London Fire Brigade to encourage ethnic minorities to join are to be praised. Purchasing is at the heart of this effort to improve the corporate social responsibility of their organisation.
The brigade is trying to meet an equal opportunities target, set by the Home Office, of recruiting 7 per cent of uniformed officers from ethnic minorities by 2009.
But there's a problem with recruiting anyone sporting facial hair, as the masks used with breathing apparatus do not work properly in those circumstances. A beard makes creating an effective air seal around the mask impossible.
That means a practising Sikh is effectively barred from becoming a firefighter. At present, although there does not appear to have been a precise audit, it seems there are very few, if any, practising Sikh men in the fire brigade, because cutting facial hair is against their religious principles.
Purchasers have been asked to find a company that can supply breathing apparatus to fit snugly around a beard to ensure the equipment works properly.
Efforts by the fire brigade to satisfy employee and potential employee needs are similar to those required in other organisations and sectors. The police have had no problems modifying uniforms to accommodate religious demands. A top-flight contracts manager is expected to be proactive and know what food his company's employees expect on the basis of their religion and their cultural tastes.
For purchasers, this story raises the crucial question of how well they know the organisation they are buying for.
It also raises major issues that are increasingly relevant for purchasers in an age where shareholder value is virtually synonymous with brand image. Corporate social responsibility plays a big part in developing this brand image.
Greater involvement with corporate strategies has increasingly been the aim of purchasers over the past decade. Examples most often cited include more involvement at board level, increased input into buying marketing services, and choosing auditor services.
The fire brigade story shows that purchasers will need to consider in greater detail brand image strategies, such as for enhancing corporate social responsibility, that are traditionally not thought of as either within their influence or, worse, interest.
Corporate social responsibility means purchasers must investigate often hidden or not obvious needs based on religion or other personal beliefs. By doing so, they will become involved in human resources strategies.
Another issue is purchasing's involvement with developing employer branding, where strategies are developed to ensure a company attracts and keeps the best and the brightest recruits from all backgrounds. Purchasing can enhance policies intended to make a company a more rewarding place to work, or in the case of Sikhs and the fire department, even allow them to consider an organisation for employment.
Purchasers can conclude that their move towards being more actively involved in corporate strategies will increasingly lead them to work with people with whom they have hitherto had little contact.
One indication of this can be found in an amendment to the UK Race Relations Act, effective from last March. Previously, according to the act, people in public-sector organisations had a duty not to discriminate on grounds of race or religion. Now they must actively promote non-discriminatory practices, such as when the fire brigade seeks a breathing apparatus that will allow people to be true to their faith as well as join the organisation.
It all points to purchasing professionals having more input into their organisation's key strategies.
But it will require purchasers to think "out of the box" on many issues. They could start by doing their own audit of which corporate policies, outside purchasing, they influence and how they have done so.
Then they could examine the policies on which they have had little or no influence and ask themselves how they can positively affect those policies.