Equality at any cost?

Henry Lee 24.05.2018

With such a focus on diversity and equality, are organisations sacrificing the quality of their staff members in order to hire candidates that help them reach diversity targets?

A focus of the public eye in recent years

I have been an HR recruiter now for over 6 years across a range of sectors recruiting for graduate positions, up to HR manager jobs and the most senior roles within an HR function. During my time working in the recruitment sector, I have been watching with interest from the side lines as equality, diversity and the gender pay gap have been pulled into the media spotlight.

As a recruitment professional I have an acute awareness that all of these areas are hugely important, that they must be discussed and that equality, on all levels, is worth fighting for. We see some employers take these issues seriously, whereas others do not see them as important. My simple recruitment perspective is: I believe the best individual judged off tangible and comparable skills should get the job no matter their ethnicity, gender, age or sexual orientation.

Underlying biases influence decisions

I am also a realist and it is well known that humans will always have a level of unconscious and conscious bias. In recruitment, this manifests when hiring managers judge you on characteristics rather than skills, and it mainly comes out in the dreaded interview feedback phrase “culture fit”.

This is a get out of jail free card, essentially meaning the hiring manager didn’t like the candidate and they do not think others within the business will like them either. It has very little to do with skill set and is open to the abuses of bias.

Bias is personal and forms over your life, and unless you are aware of your biases, you cannot change them. So I believe it is our responsibility, as individuals living in harmony on this blue planet, to learn about our personal biases and address them to minimise discrimination in the workplace. This will ensure we get the best and most diverse talent into our teams. It is not easy...

...but In a perfect world this would be the solution!

The problem we face is that some individuals will act on their biases, and teams within businesses will be represented in a biased way. This does not mean we should not strive for perfection, only that perfection across all levels of equality and diversity is going to be hard to achieve.

Enter another human failing - “the fast fix”. Businesses could invest in long term training programmes, promote E&D events to change company culture and manifest a truly diverse and balanced workforce through the want of its staff. Or take the approach of enterprising companies that commercialise the appetite for diversity in our workplaces.

Some of these are recruitment companies that are popping up to supply business with candidates that possess the desired characteristics and skills that companies might be lacking. Another side of this is organisations approaching advertising agencies to make the wording of their adverts more favourable to certain demographics.

Quick fix or a long lasting change of culture?

Through corrective hiring, companies can achieve the desired change in the perception of their reported diversity without having to fix underlying discrimination. This begs the question; does simply hiring a more diverse staff group change the underlying culture of discrimination?

I believe the premises of a commercial entity promoting protected characteristics such as a recruitment firm or an advertising agency is in itself promoting discrimination, and failing an open and fair recruitment process. This has the potential to leave the most highly skilled individual without a job.

I will leave you with 3 questions:

  • Does the commercialisation of equality matter?
  • If discrimination is perceived to be positive, is it a good thing to discriminate in this way?
  • By promoting or targeting protected characteristics, are we promoting equality at any cost and where do we draw the line?
Henry Lee's picture
Manager | HR Recruitment, London


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