Action stations: a D&I strategy will boost performance

Diversity and inclusion is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’—it can give insurance industry firms a competitive edge and is expected to become an ever-greater differentiator for customers and clients, CII HR director Caren Thomas tells Intelligent Insurer.

When Intelligent Insurer spoke to the new human resources (HR) director of the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII), she had just moved house. Given that the UK was in the middle of another pandemic lockdown and Caren Thomas was still relatively fresh in post, she was remarkably calm and collected, despite having spent much of the day before the house move in virtual work meetings.

Appointed HR director in October 2020 after previously doing consultancy work for the institute, Thomas has already helped launch a diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy within the organisation.

“For me, the drivers of HR are about engaging people and driving business results—that’s the purpose of HR,” she says.

“My role is to build out a strategy that is going to engage people and drive business results. Another part of my role is more external facing, and includes things that are close to my heart such as D&I, supporting the organisation, and supporting our customers and members in terms of that agenda.”

Thomas brings extensive career experience, which encompasses UK and global organisations across a wide range of sectors, to the role. She says this has helped her build up insight into the importance of culture. Inclusion, as part of D&I, is crucial, as is ensuring people understand why it's so important and that they buy into it, she says.

As part of this thinking, working on delivering the CII’s internal D&I strategy is one of her priorities for 2021.

The CII strategy is about engaging the workforce and strengthening leadership, as well as developing a higher performance culture and, obviously, ensuring an inclusive diverse employee base. It also means strengthening and embedding the idea of CII as a “well” organisation with an aligned and fair reward strategy.

“We are looking at the breadth of what it means to work today, what equals an engaged workforce,” she explains. “It’s all about listening to people and understanding our approach, and having the data.”

Anytime, anywhere

The CII started drawing up its D&I strategy in the middle of 2020 by looking at where the organisation was in terms of the culture it wanted to develop. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to embrace remote working and a greater level of technology use, Thomas says, it was an opportune moment for the CII to fully commit to a culture of “anytime anywhere” working with D&I as part of this plan.

“We had a strategy session with our board, and a committee linked to the board, and we went out to the business and said, ‘you’re developing your business plans for next year—to achieve those great things what does your people agenda look like?’,” Thomas recalls.

CII took the information from the different directorates, the board and external stakeholders to develop a strategy that is designed to work for everyone.

A lot of the work to collect data was conducted at the back end of 2020, she says, which has put the organisation in “a good place to make sure that the people agenda is based on data, so that we make data-based decisions”.

“The plan is to track progress and recognise that we may not achieve D&I gold the first time but my goodness, we’ll certainly make progress.”

It’s an ambitious strategy with lots of different strands to pull together but for Thomas, this is exactly what employees, and external members should expect from their professional body.

She believes that diversity is “quite straightforward, it’s inclusion that is harder”.

The big question, she says, is: “How do we achieve an inclusive workforce?”.

“The first point is to understand the composition of our workforce and then understand what the external environment looks like. Then we put in place a very clear set of actions, which are leader-led and leader-owned, which we will then work on.”

“There is a threat in terms of how more remote operations will affect women.”
Caren Thomas, CII

Actions speak louder than words

Thomas highlights the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement as a driver for broader societal action on D&I. “BLM has driven the agenda in terms of ‘ok we’ve been talking about this stuff for a long time, and we all get it, but actually what are we all doing and how will we hold ourselves accountable?’,” she says.

For the CII this means that remote working must address the potential threat to women’s careers, she says.

“When we look at the challenges now, particularly for women, I think there is a threat in terms of how more remote operations will affect women.”

Significant childcare responsibilities remain with women, she says, adding that it’s an important consideration particularly as “flexible working will be the norm going forward”.

“At the CII we don’t want people to be in the office five days a week—it would be ok if people don’t want to be in the office at all.

The idea is that it’s truly flexible, it’s all about trusting people, engaging with our workforce.

“The feedback I’m getting from other organisations is that colleagues and employees want flexibility, it’s a new modern way of working.”

The catch is that when things do get back to a more normal way of working “we’re likely to have a higher proportion of men returning to the office than women”, she says.

This means it is important to think about what that means for women’s career development.

“Managers will see men in front of them every day, so it’s important that the women that aren’t in the office every day receive the same attention and career development progression,” she says.

“At the CII we’re very conscious about making sure that we get that sorted otherwise we will just promote a culture of presenteeism. We recognise there are many challenges in life and we think you can deliver better performance if people have some support and flexibility and control around their lives.”

A greater level of ongoing remote and flexible working also brings the issue of trusting your employees into sharp focus. Some managers like to have their teams at their desks where they can see them working. Thomas says to enable people to work “anytime anywhere”, managers and organisations need to start with “a glass half full rather than glass half empty” mindset.

To encourage greater trust, she says, HR and leaders can work with managers to establish what the issues are. For example, they need to find out how managers manage performance, and get them to set goals and objectives.

“Output is the starting point. Think about output and impact, don’t think about activity. As a high-performing organisation the CII needs to focus on the impacts and outcomes, not the activity,” Thomas explains.

“It’s about working with managers to work out how to achieve those goals and stretch performance. People in the office five days a week can be doing nothing just as much as they can be doing nothing at home.”

“Further actions include increasing the proportion of part-time and job-sharing roles.”

Tackling the gender pay gap

The CII is very conscious of its gender pay gap. In November 2020, the organisation published its annual figures for the third time. This revealed a median gender pay gap where men were paid more than women by 13.94 percent in 2020. The difference was greater in 2019, at 14.62 percent, showing the average gap between men and women’s pay had narrowed in 2020. But measuring the gap using the mean average showed it had widened to 16.25 percent in 2020, from 14.77 percent in 2019.

For 2021, the institute has set a target to bring the mean average down from 16.25 percent to 15 percent.

In tandem with publishing its pay gap, in November 2020 the CII also reported its gender pension gap for the first time, which stood at 11.18 percent on April 30, 2020. This is compared with a median average gap of 18.93 percent in 2019. Thomas says that in 2021 the aim is to narrow the median average gap to 16 percent.

Efforts to narrow the gap over the past three years have included re-evaluating roles to address historic anomalies that affect part-time employees, the move to “anytime anywhere” working, training managers to recognise and overcome unconscious biases, and a commitment to the CII’s Insuring Women’s Futures Financial Flexible Working and Inclusive Customer Financial Lives pledges.

Under the new D&I strategy, further actions include increasing the proportion of part-time and job-sharing roles and “further embedding the CII ‘anytime anywhere’ employment model supporting greater flexibility in where, how and when we work”, says Thomas.

“We already use blind CVs [the practice of removing information that could create bias in the hiring process] but we will be working more with a broader range of CVs and specialist recruitment agencies as our recruitment partners. Where agencies are not specialists in ensuring a more diverse candidate base we will work with them to develop their practices.”

The CII also plans to offer more information and education for its female colleagues about financial planning and pension provision.

“We, like many others, are conscious of our gender pay gap,” says Thomas. “We know we have a higher proportion of men in leadership roles. We know that at more junior levels we have a higher proportion of women. So it’s about making sure that there is equal opportunity for everybody.”

To support this wider goal, the organisation set targets for promoting greater diversity in senior roles. Thomas says the goal is to ensure 50 percent of people at executive leadership level are women and 30 percent are from an ethnic minority by 2023.

Currently, the gender target has been hit, with women accounting for 57 percent of the executive leadership team, but currently there is no ethnic minority representation.

Another part of the CII’s agenda is to make sure that the men in the organisation are also equally represented. “When I look at something like wellness it can be a female-dominated environment. But it’s a big thing for us because we know that an organisation is not going to perform well unless it’s well, so wellness is central.

“When we looked at our wellness strategy, we realised that it was women who were driving it. So now we’re saying to the men ‘what’s your part in this?’ and ‘come and join us and be part of the wellness strategy’. CII colleagues have been hugely supportive and committed, so now we have a group of men who are supporting our wellness strategy.”

Another action CII is taking is to increase the proportion of men within different work groups.

“In the past it’s been all about the women but for us true inclusion is also about men and ethnic minorities if it’s to be truly inclusive. That’s the platform that the CII operates from in terms of its charter and its code of ethics.”

“The code requires people to treat people fairly regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation and other protected characteristics.”


The CII has said it will hold itself accountable to D&I goals, and monitor and track progress.

“At the end of the year we’re going to review and say ‘did we do what we said we’d do?’ and ‘does our D&I strategy have integrity?’. That is a bit of a scary place but it is also a very exciting place,” Thomas explains.

She says the overall D&I strategy targets, which stretch into 2023, are to represent the community in which the CII operates.

“For a chunk of them we are either meeting them or on track.”

But she is clear that actions are the most important thing. “It isn’t about your dashboard or your targets, it’s actually about the actions. The starting point is always good data—you get good data by explaining to people what you’re going to do with the data and then identify what your clear actions are to achieve success.

“For us it’s live, it’s there, we’re proud of it, and we are looking to openly share what we’re doing with as many organisations as would like to discuss it, as well as learning and listening in terms of what we can do bigger and better.”

For members and corporate members, the CII has a code of ethics which requires people to work within the law and also within the spirit of the law. The code requires people to treat people fairly regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation and other protected characteristics.

It’s about encouraging industry organisations and individuals to produce and promote equality on diversity, says Thomas, as she emphasises the CII’s active role in supporting members with its own events, and in other events such as International Women’s Day and the Dive In Festival.

Last year the CII launched a financial inclusion companion, and Thomas says a D&I companion to the code of ethics is coming out this year.

“Part of promoting and progressing the insurance profession is about understanding the organisations and working with them, providing information and insight, supporting them and collaborating with them,” says Thomas, “as well as recognising that organisations are all in quite different places.

“For some it might be small steps but hopefully we’re moving forward together to develop that inclusive profession.”

“In the past, there was a feeling that D&I was a nice-to-have and only HR people were talking about it. We haven’t completely shaken this off but I think things have moved on hugely.

“We now need to spread that message. It may be that I talk to the converted but I know lots of our members and corporate bodies absolutely get it. It is an open door and for those that maybe don’t quite get it, it’s about their realising that it’s a differentiator, and if not now it will become a differentiator.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock / Jacob Lund

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