I was, therefore, interested recently when looking at the agenda for certain presentations to note that the balance of questioning is noticeably switching towards what we are all coming to know as ESG (Environmental Social Governance) issues and, in particular, questions around equality, diversity, and social inclusion. “How do you propose to ensure diverse ethnic participation in cleaning teams at individual site level? How are you going to add value to the local community? How will you measure these?” I decided to attend one of the presentations myself to gauge the tone and, sure enough, the focus was very much on ESG-style questioning rather than on technical expertise, service delivery, or what most of us think of as the quality side of things.
ESG is a concept born out of the financial services sector to help guide investment decisions, but its focus on social issues has made it a welcome and particularly relevant topic for the cleaning industry. Which leads me to ask what is the best way for both clients and contractors to deal with this in presentations? On the one hand cynics may say it will be nothing more than a tick box exercise in which contractors deliver politically correct answers against social value objectives. On the other, there is no doubting that we work in an industry where staff can be vulnerable to unfair or unequal treatment, however unintentional, across recruitment, promotion, and general man management, simply because the procedures are not in place to stop it happening. As a result, it makes good sense for us, as contractors, to address the social issues referenced by ESG.
We do, of course have an inbuilt advantage as an industry. Cleaning is probably the most ethnically diverse and gender equal industry in the country because of the historical composition of the available labour pool. What is more, I am proud to say that, at least as far as DOC is concerned, diversity and equality does not just happen at the coal face; it percolates right the way up through the company as front line staff are promoted to management. In the background, however, is the reality that when a company takes over a new contract, it cannot socially engineer the make-up of the on-site team, nor might they want to if there is stability and a strong work ethic. And then there is the major challenge we are all facing at the moment, namely the tightest labour market in probably thirty years. I have heard contractors say it sometimes feel like a case of ‘needs must’ when it comes to recruitment and if that means relying on a good supervisor to recruit from their local community, even if pro team it leads to a slight bias in one or more areas, then that may be the most effective way to get the contract staffed and running smoothly to the client’s satisfaction.
So, I feel there is an interesting debate to be had. As contractors, we acknowledge the importance of diversity, equality, and inclusiveness, and at the same time face certain realities. Working with sustainability and social value consultants, as many contractors do, we all need to find ways of delivering against key ESG objectives whilst maintaining an effective workforce. My hope is that those charged with the responsibility of procuring cleaning contracts will engage with the cleaning industry, through the medium of tenders, to recognise that our objective must be both to provide a first-class cleaning service and to deliver on ESG, not one at the expense of the other.
Published in April issue of Cleaning & Maintenance.