How can organisations use positive action to boost diversity?
By Jo Faragher on 9 March 2021
When an organisation makes a strong, public commitment to improving diversity, there is often a vocal minority that question its strategy. The BBC and Sky were two such organisations recently, with the former setting out its 2021-23 plan to become the “gold standard” for workplace diversity and inclusion, and a commitment by Sky that 20% of its UK and Ireland workforce would be from diverse backgrounds by 2025. Both employers understand the business benefits of recruiting a diverse workforce, but faced a backlash from commentators on social media that they were pursuing an anti-white agenda and were too “woke”.
In a bid to push the dial on diversity, many organisations now turn to positive action to ‘level up’ career opportunities for disadvantaged groups, but it can be a controversial strategy. According to the Equality Act 2010, if an initiative is a proportionate means of achieving an aim of enabling or encouraging people with a protected characteristic to overcome that disadvantage, to meet their needs, or to enable or encourage their increased participation (for example a recruitment campaign targeted at a group that is under-represented) this is positive action and is usually within the boundaries of the law, but if a hiring manager treated a less qualified candidate more favourably because of their protected characteristic, this would be positive discrimination, and unlawful. “The easiest way to think of it is if there is a tie-break for a promotion, you may be able to choose the person with a protected characteristic, if you, as an employer, think that characteristic is under-represented or disadvantaged,” says Sophie Vanhegan, a partner at law firm GQ|Littler. “But it’s very rare that two people would genuinely be equally qualified, so organisations tend to focus on softer approaches such as targeting certain groups for support and training.”
Redressing the balance
Darain Faraz, co-founder of People Like Us, a network for marketing professionals from under-represented backgrounds, says that positive action is about taking deliberate steps to address underrepresentation, for example in recruitment. “It is about ensuring equality of opportunity for people irrespective of race, gender, sexuality or other protected characteristic,” he explains. Ways in which businesses can do this include expanding talent pools through partnerships with organisations that represent particular communities, by ensuring the language they use in job adverts is inclusive, and taking a “skills-first” approach to hiring rather than favouring experience and formal qualifications. People Like Us’ LinkedIn group regularly posts open roles with great success. Avantika Vaishnav, marketing manager at Debut, a graduate recruitment platform, suggests subtly changing language in job adverts: “Job descriptions can also be used to target groups, so using statements like ‘we encourage…’ or ‘we welcome…’ applications from a particular group. For example, gender-dominated industries can encourage applications from the minority gender.”
Faraz adds that positive action needs to be authentic if employees and customers are to engage with it, however. “It’s about being sensible with it – if it wreaks of tokenism or has a whiff of being ‘woke’ then the whole thing falls apart quite quickly and the backlash can, rightly, be quite harsh. However, if the intent and the broader approach by a business is authentic and meaningful, then the likelihood of this kind of reaction lessens somewhat. Essentially, we’re saying ‘do it because you mean it, not because it’s a tick-box exercise’.” Fear of a backlash should not prevent organisations levelling up opportunities for under-represented groups either, he says. “If a massive movement like Black Lives Matter can take hold globally and there is only nominal impact on D&I practices, then we need to take a longer harder look at the systemic biases and practises that foster that type of inaction. And if that means being more forthright about how you want to fill open roles – then so be it.”
Partnerships and processes
Construction company Wates Group has committed to doubling female representation by 2025, as well as improving representation of those from ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ and disabled individuals. Nikunj Upadhyay, inclusion and diversity director, says: “We are debiasing our hiring process so that it enables us to attract and hire from a wider, more diverse talent pool, as well as looking at how we can retain and offer meaningful career development and progression opportunities equitably for all colleagues.” As part of this, the company will consider the entire hiring process, from the inclusivity of job descriptions and adverts, to how it attracts talent that has not previously considered the construction sector as a viable career option. Partnerships and levelling up opportunities are all part of this process. “We are partnering with organisations like Black Professionals in Construction and myGwork to see if we can reach out to talent more widely, and are anonymising CVs to ensure the shortlisting and interview processes are fair,” she adds. “We are also casting a critical eye on the referral process as our data shows that referrals typically favour the majority groups within organisations.”
Upadhyay believes any strategy should be driven by data. “I would also say that before you think about placing adverts where you believe more women see them, it might need a bias check,” she says. “As my recruitment lead often says to me, all job seekers look at mainstream channels, so what we need to do is take a more holistic approach.” By using the data, organisations can design more targeted recruitment processes from the ground up. “For example, it is a known fact that almost all jobs available on websites default to a full time working pattern, yet organisational data indicates that currently more women than men work reduced hours. If all senior roles continue to be advertised as the default full time, how does someone who does not want to work that pattern build their career or realise the potential they have? Similarly, data indicates that women tend to apply to a role if they meet all the criteria listed on a job advert. This should lead organisations to review adverts so they only have the key or necessary skills listed on the job advert.”
Helping the best candidate to succeed
She acknowledges that treading the line between positive action and positive discrimination can be difficult at times. “It is necessary to understand the difference and also raise awareness of the difference,” she explains. “For me, positive action acknowledges the impact of privilege. It recognises that individuals don’t all start from the same place and there are individuals who have to jump more hoops to be successful at the same activity. It is not a compromise on meritocracy. In fact, it emphasises choice between equally qualified individuals.”
She adds: “In some ways, I think the issue is deeper than that. For so long there has been a subversion of inclusion and diversity efforts by constantly raising a question of merit when we talk about diversity. This has almost led to an implicit association between diversity and lowering the bar when actually it is the other way round. When you focus on ensuring your candidate pool is diverse and attracting talent across the societal spectrum, you are ensuring access to better quality candidates and ensuring that your regular default pool is being tested better. It is really about letting the best candidate succeed by raising the bar.”
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