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Arun Batra used to watch his father come home from his job as a taxi driver after a day of being insulted, spat at and once hospitalised following racial abuse.
His own experiences were scarcely better: one of a handful of Asian pupils at a state school in Nottingham in the 1970s, he was subject to “all the different variations” of racist slurs.
“I’m no different to most south Asians of my generation with parents who came to England in the 1960s,” says the EY partner, sitting in the firm’s offices near London Bridge.
“The day-to-day feeling of growing up in the 1970s was . . . you were not only different but subject to a degree of abuse. You felt that you weren’t really accepted in this country. It left me feeling pretty angry at the world.”
It also led him to focus his career on improving opportunities for people from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds. Things have changed, he says — for him and wider society. He made partner at EY last summer and received an OBE for services to diversity. He dedicated this to his late father, whose good works, including helping develop Nottingham’s Hindu temple, went without reward.
“I got the letter from Buckingham Palace just a few days after I’d been told I’d been made partner. It was a bit overwhelming to be honest.”
But he has no illusions about equality in the workplace. “I would say there has been a significant change [but] there’s some way to go.”
Mr Batra’s path to partner differed from many at “Big Four” firms, whose senior ranks are filled with graduates of top universities and public schools. His main aim at school was survival: he left with few qualifications and an “awful” first job selling vacuum cleaners. Having talked his way into a sixth form college, he “realised maybe the world can offer me something”, and went on to study law.
Initially taking roles in charities and then local government, Mr Batra led inclusion at the Mayor of London’s economic development agency and in the Criminal Justice Group at the Home Office.
He worked on a diversity benchmark for London businesses that became a national standard, sponsored by EY among others. He now heads EY’s diversity practice, working with companies on inclusion strategies at a time of growing scrutiny from regulators, investors and employees over factors from gender and ethnicity to mental health and disabilities.
“We see fantastic intent,” he says. But he thinks companies could work harder to look at a “diverse portfolio of people” to recruit. “My big advice for companies is one of courage. This won’t happen on its own.”
This is not a risky move “because all the data sets tell us that diverse teams help create better revenue and profit”.
He is an advocate of sponsorship above mentoring, having been sponsored by Sir David Bell, a former FT chairman. “It’s taking on personal responsibility for somebody’s success and living in their shoes.”
But Mr Batra worries that he now works at a level where “we’re protected, we interact with people of a similar ilk, they’re our clients”.
“Then you only need to watch the football [and see the racism on the terraces] to make you actually realise that maybe we are in a bit of a bubble . . . we’re in a really difficult time at the moment, where people’s prejudices have come to the surface.”
He once ran a diversity training programme for refuse collectors. “They turned their backs on me. I remember running training to a load of backs and thinking: what do I do? Do I carry on? Do I stop?”
“There were no global [diversity] leaders for businesses; that just didn’t exist. Now I’m in an environment where people say: can you help me understand how I can do this better?”
The Big Four professional services firms have their own problems, with complaints about bullying and working conditions.
Mr Batra has “not experienced anything disproportionate” in the sector, he says, pointing to diversity initiatives and sponsorship schemes.
“Of course you can’t have a perfect organisation with 15,000 people,” he adds. “But when you look in terms of some of the initiatives and commitments — be it neurodiversity, mental health, women in black and minority ethnic sponsorship programmes and much broader — I’ve been really surprised at how proactive the Big Four have been.”
The gender pay gap at EY in 2018 was 19 per cent, and 14 per cent for ethnic minorities. Mr Batra says that there has been a serious push to address this and “what we haven’t done is rest on our laurels and just accept [pay gaps] as they are”.
He says EY now asks: “What does it mean for one person to feel that they belong within the infrastructure of EY and what can we do in the mechanics of the day-to-day infrastructure to really make that happen?”
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