13 June 2024

Diversity droogs are sucking the fun out of work


There’s a problem with EDI enthusiasts. Their well-meaning aim to avoid putting anyone at an unfair advantage can quickly turn into the kind of joyless puritanism we used to expect from temperance campaigners in 1890 or a delicate maiden aunt in one of the Just William books.

If you don’t believe this, have a look at a story about a report from progressive Islington recruitment consultants Rare, self-styled ‘leaders in diversity graduate recruitment’ to the upmarket legal profession, who believe passionately in ‘driving equality through technology’. A serious problem, according to this report, is that top City law firms organise far too many social gatherings in pubs.

It’s not that the pubs themselves are bad. Certainly not: there are a lot of splendid Victorian boozers and state-of-the art bars sandwiched between skyscrapers. Nor is it the case that they don’t serve a decent pint or glass of Aussie Chardonnay in the function room. On the contrary, Rare’s difficulty is that they provide exactly the service you’d expect them to. The ready availability of alcohol, they say – shock horror – engenders discrimination because it offends strict Muslims and makes them feel left out.

Their answer? Given apparently with a totally straight face, it is that while occasional functions serving booze might just be acceptable, high-flying law firms need instead to introduce cooking, painting or pottery classes to boost team bonding between their legal masters of the universe.

This could be interesting. Imagine for a moment Friday night in Rare’s ideal top-notch international City firm Tolerance Empathy & Co (previously Gohard Chase & Getum). ‘Sorry, Laura’, texts an exhausted trainee to his girlfriend, ‘can’t be with you tonight after finishing the syndicated loan due diligence: there’s a three-line whip for the social at the Whitechapel Pottery until midnight’. Meanwhile, the managing partner phones his wife: ‘You know we make a big thing about social bonding. You owe it to me to help entertain our carefully-selected trainees at their pilau-cooking competition. You should be able to find it: it’s somewhere near your pilates outfit at Tufnell Park’.

And that of course assumes that people actually want to engage in such wholesome bonding exercises. Where the idea comes from that an Islamic aversion to alcohol somehow corresponds to a burning enthusiasm for communal pot-throwing, convivial painting by numbers or soothing sessions of souffle-making is anyone’s guess. Come to think of it, it’s doubtful if many ambitious commercial lawyers of any religion or background would feel enormously attracted to them.

Yet that doesn’t matter. Big Law must it seems steer its young, thrusting and overworked associates away from after-hours activities the vast majority like and pressure them instead to do things that bore most of them but offend none. Presumably it must also cross its fingers that its personnel selected on an oh-so-scientific basis won’t decamp en masse to a firm that actually encourages its people to enjoy themselves unwinding at the Viaduct in Newgate Street.

Why must firms do this? The suggestion apparently is that when in a pub, some Muslims feel forced to drink, or object to being encouraged to do so, or simply believe themselves polluted by being in an establishment that pays so little attention to the teachings of the Prophet.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Nobody is in fact forced to consume alcohol: there are plenty of soft drinks available. More to the point, note that these are would-be top lawyers, looking in some cases at being paid on qualification a six-figure salary to negotiate hard, go anywhere to help their client and resist aggressive bargaining from a lawyer on the other side. Indeed, perhaps we might ask ever so discreetly whether they are actually in the right job if they feel intolerably distressed when someone offers them a drink.

Moreover, there is a slippery slope here. Is any activity to be regarded as suspect merely because those who don’t enjoy it might feel left out? What about the five-a-side football competitions that many firms organise on weekends in the Essex marshes and elsewhere? If the unathletic can’t benefit from the camaraderie they instil, surely this amounts to discrimination against them too.

In any case, the real difficulty is more straightforward. It’s all very well to object in the name of EDI to particular groups being pressured to act contrary to their preferred lifestyle. But it is just as hard – indeed much harder – to demand that the majority change its way of doing things for the benefit of what may be a small minority.

If 10% of the workers in a firm have a deeply rooted religious objection to alcohol, by all means insist that they’re not forced to consume it at office functions. That’s decency and tolerance. But tolerance also demands that the tail be prevented from wagging the dog. The 90% who do like a drink should not be deprived of that pleasure at those same functions merely because there is a group that is unhappy that anyone there should be drinking in their presence. At least to some extent, life in a modern law firm is now about fitting in; and presumptively at least, this means preventing a small number from seeking to dictate the behaviour of the majority.

Law can, as any practitioner will admit, be toe-curlingly boring at times. But we need firmly to resist the idea that law firms need to adjust even their social events to the kind of dreary beige uniformity that aims not so much at allowing people to enjoy themselves as at avoiding offence to particular interest groups.

To the contrary: let the lawyers in such firms enjoy themselves as they see fit. Whisper it quietly, but letting them do this and showing such anti-bias practitioners the door could do things for productivity that any number of EDI campaigners could only dream of.

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Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of law at Swansea Law School.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.