Employers should introduce positive action programmes to increase the representation of ethnic minorities in the workforce, a new report has suggested.
But the government-commissioned study by the University of Bristol also admitted that forcing employers to hire from ethnic minorities could lead to a backlash and charges of reverse discrimination.
Judith Squires, professor in the politics department at the university, and one of the authors of the report, said that for any such policies to succeed, a distinction has to be made between positive action and positive discrimination.
“We see positive action as improving any structural inequalities that exist, rather than promoting one group of people over another,” she said. “Otherwise, there is a real risk that people will feel they have been discriminated against because they are white.”
For this reason, Squires said it was essential that policies are not implemented in a mechanical fashion, with numerical targets that force employers to hire ethnic minorities purely to meet government criteria, regardless of candidate suitability.
The report, Developing Positive Action Policies: learning from the experiences of Europe and North America, looked at positive action initiatives used in other countries, their levels of success, and what models could be applied to the UK.
It found that policies favouring candidates in the recruitment process purely on the grounds of their race caused a backlash and also led to successful legal challenges, particularly across the Atlantic.
As a result, the US has abandoned numerical quotas. However, it has now implemented contract compliance, whereby organisations set positive action timetables for organisations doing business with the state. It is this model that the report recommends the government introduces in the UK.
“We think public contractors should give their contracts to private contractors that have the best diversity track records,” said Squires.
She said all organisations should compile comprehensive statistics that show the composition of their workforce, what career levels ethnic minority groups achieve, the number of applicants of different ethnic groups to recruitment drives, how successful they are, and any problems that need to be tackled.
Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, doubted that the private sector would look favourably on any attempts to dictate how it organised and monitored its workforce to gain contracts.
“Would it be acceptable for external people to try to influence the private sector?” she said. “You can’t have actions forced on an organisation if it’s not in their best interests, and it has to be up to the decision makers in organisations to make those kinds of decisions.”
Business leaders will not welcome any mandates that increase the bureaucratic demands already placed on them, either. The report anticipated this would be a problem, and advised that red tape is kept to a minimum.
“It is quite clear that these policies need to be bureaucratically light, or they will be unpopular and could lead to a backlash,” said Squires.
UK organisations have also experienced problems with numerical targets and claims of reverse discrimination. One notable example came last year when Gloucestershire police force rejected a large number of white applicants during a recruitment drive because of a positive discrimination policy. The case attracted widespread and critical coverage.
Gerald Hartup, director at civil rights group Liberty and Law, said situations like this actually damage race relations and cause more problems than they solve.
“Employers should be looking to fill their workforce with the best available people and should be colour and sex blind,” he said. “If there are lots of capable people applying for a job, rather than stacking the odds in favour of ethnic minority groups, employers should set the bar higher.”
Worman agreed that candidates should always be selected according to their skills and experience. “Equality should be based on the root concept of merit. Employers have to recognise what diversity means and why inclusivity is important,” she said.
The emphasis should be on improving education and awareness of diversity issues, rather than mandating policies that could be viewed as having heavily political overtones, she added.
“You have to encourage employers and not go for forced change. It is through better awareness that you get real change.”
Many diversity groups favour positive action, and this report is the latest in a number of calls on the government to make it compulsory. The independent Equalities Review, chaired by Trevor Phillips – an outspoken advocate of measures to promote ethnic minority employment – is expected to call for similar action in the next few weeks.
Ominously, the government has welcomed the report, and has refused to rule out positive discrimination.
Positive action: lessons from the US
Numerical goals and preferential treatment for ill-qualified candidates are not popular and cause resentment.
Contract compliance is the most effective way to promote positive action in employment.
Successful employment equity programmes must take into account supply and demand issues.
Positive action programmes should be continually reviewed in terms of their effectiveness, business efficiency and fairness, to ensure their success.
Source: Developing Positive Action Policies: learning from the experiences of Europe and North America report