HR directors talking at a recent debate on age discrimination agreed that age-neutral recruitment was a worthwhile sentiment, but extremely difficult to implement in practice.
The Employers Forum on Age (EFA) and HR consultancy Bartlett Scott Edgar brought together nine HR specialists from around the UK to discuss the practical hurdles and consequences of age-neutral recruitment.
The public and private sector executives were asked whether all direct and indirect age elements should be removed from a job application form in an attempt to base hiring decisions on competency alone. Specifically, was it time to ditch chronology – a worker’s career timeline – from the application form?
Sam Mercer, director of the EFA, said the removal of chronology from a CV meant job applicants would be able to progress to the important face-to-face interview without fear of being culled because of their age.
“A lot of work has to be done to change perceptions about age but nothing’s going to change [an employer’s] perception about an older or younger person more than having a very talented individual sitting in front of them and blowing them away,” she said.
“That’s the opportunity that we’re trying to create at this stage because at the moment people aren’t even getting a chance.”
The EFA caused a stir in the HR industry in June when it created an application form that excluded all of an applicant’s age information, from the date of birth to career chronology.
Mercer said that new legislation in 2006 outlawing age discrimination meant recruiters and HR directors needed to make sure their hiring policies were “age proofed”.
She said the removal of age information in the recruitment process would help businesses comply with the incoming discrimination laws, and would also lead to more diverse and effective workplaces.
But the EFA’s call to ditch chronology did not go unchallenged. Most HR directors at the debate expressed some reservations about the idea.
Paul Pagliari, director of HR at Scottish Water, said a job applicant’s chronology gave employers important insights into the character of a prospective employee.
“It provides a lot of invaluable information that helps you understand things like motivation and drive and commitment,” he said.
“It’s very difficult to look at somebody’s career and understand why they’ve gone to a particular stage, taken on particular responsibilities or different roles, in the absence of chronology,” he added.
He said ignoring an applicant’s career timeline could lead to mistakes being made out of ignorance.
“I think you have to be very careful here not to develop a state where people just don’t have any information on which to make the right decisions for their organisations.”
Angela O’Connor, director of HR at the Crown Prosecution Service, said removing chronology would not stop age discrimination.
“If somebody is going to discriminate then it only delays the process until the interview,” she said.
Checking a chronology was a powerful tool – a tool recruiters would find difficult to give up. For example, finding a deliberate falsehood in a CV chronology would reveal a particularly unfavourable trait in a jobseeker.
“One of the ways we were able to pick up [job application] fraud, in huge numbers where I was working, was through chronological issues,” said O’Connor.
“We were able to measure and say: ‘We’ve got this chronology and we’ve got this qualification, but hang on, there’s something not quite right here.'”
But she welcomed moves to battle age discrimination and warned that ageism was not just prejudice against older workers.
“It can be the middle-aged, it can be the very young, it is just that maybe there are more issues as you age,” she said.
Terry McDougall, assistant chief executive of HR at the London Borough of Hackney, said leaving chronology out could lead to the recruitment process becoming unnecessarily complicated.
It ran the risk of being perceived as another concession to a form of political correctness that was more of a burden than an aid to organisations.
“There used to be a whole political correctness issue that actually disenfranchised a lot of managers at Hackney,” said McDougall. “It made their lives a lot more difficult than they had to be and we spent a lot of energy getting deflected from our original aims.”
There was also a concern that abandoning chronology would actually distract employers from the task of hiring the best person for the job.
O’Connor said: “You can end up focused on the inputs rather than the outcomes. Rather than asking, ‘What is this job about?’ or ‘What do you really need to do this job?‘, you find yourself asking, ‘Can you fit our really complicated process and fill in our really difficult form?’.”
She cited the case of one of her staff asking for a training course for filling out job application forms as an example of a simple process getting out of hand.
“Now, if we need a training course for our staff to fill out an application form then there’s something very wrong with our recruitment process. And there was.”
The CPS had recently returned to what it considered the simpler hiring procedures of the past to satisfy its recruitment needs, said O’Connor.
“We’ve gone back a bit to the way we were doing things in the 1970s and 1980s – really straightforward processes. We’ve taken out the competency-based approach because we couldn’t recruit the skills that we needed.”
John Nicholson, head of diversity at HM Land Registry, said his organisation used competency-based recruitment and he believed it could be used more effectively than chronology.
“I know there are a lot of reasons why you want to establish someone’s career background, but I think there’s a tendency just to ask that automatically, for no reason,” said Nicholson.
“If there’s a reason, a financial query or a reference check, then sure, but remember, people have become expert liars. If recruiters aren’t using other means to check [someone’s work history] then chronology actually is completely useless.”
But Tom Nicholls, assistant director of HR at London & Quadrant Housing Group, said gaps in a CV chronology could reveal vital information about an applicant.
“If you look at the CV or application form and you see gaps then I think it’s inevitable that you will have questions,” he said. “You want to know why there is a gap and that’s a genuine concern that needs to be challenged and fair questions have to be asked.”
After all, what if a significant gap in a chronology represented time spent in prison for an offence completely irreconcilable with the job being applied for?
The use of the chronology to give insights into an applicant’s values was also helpful, said Sarah Churchman, head of diversity at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Her company always looked for compatible values in a prospective employee.
“You do need to have a certain amount of fit,” she said. “Are their personal values in line with our corporate values? I’m talking about a sharing of values like teamwork, for example.”
Mercer said there was no doubt chronology currently played an important part in the hiring process. But questioning its value was one way for organisations to focus on whether it aided more than impeded their long-term recruitment goals.
“Yes, for many organisations getting the chronology is really important, but there are many jobs out there where chronology is irrelevant,” she said.
“I think we are beginning to recognise and question ourselves on where we need chronology and why we need chronology. If we come to the conclusion that we don’t need it, then why use it?”
In a recruitment study last year slightly over 70 per cent of job applicants said they had experienced age discrimination. Almost one-fifth of them said being too old was the main form of discrimination.
Another report last year showed 58 per cent of employers believed age a factor when considering job applicants.
Mercer conceded it would take a lot more than simply ditching chronology to transform workplaces into age discrimination-free zones.
“You have to train, and you have to have good feedback. There are lots of little things that employers can change,” she said.
“And maybe chronology, for some organisations in some types of jobs, is going to be one of those things.”
About the event
The roundtable discussion was hosted by the Employers Forum on Age and HR consultancy Bartlett Scott Edgar.
- Sarah Churchman, Head of diversity, PricewaterhouseCoopers
- John Nicholson, Head of diversity, HM Land Registry
- Paul Pagliari, HR director, Scottish Water
- Vivienne Brown, Legislation team, DfES
- Angela O’Connor, HR director, CPS
- Terry McDougall, Assistant chief executive, HR, Hackney Council
- Jill Tombs, HR director, Mencap
- Willie Griffen, Head of strategic personnel, London Borough of Hounslow
- Tom Nicholls, Assistant HR director, London & Quadrant Housing Group
- Sam Mercer, Director, EFA
- Rachel Krys, Communications, EFA
- Freda Line, Employer relations, EFA
- Michael Divers, Director of consultancy services, Bartlett Scott Edgar
- Anne Riley, managing director, Bartlett Scott Edgar
- Heather Staff, media and research director, Bartlett Scott Edgar
- Louise Jopling, HR consultancy leader, Bartlett Scott Edgar