Is there a case for positive discrimination?

Last week, Personnel Today revealed that Trevor Phillips, the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), was backing a recruitment company that was catering for graduates from a “visibly non-white background”. This was a clear case of positive discrimination, which is contrary to the Race Relations Act 1976.

The firm, Rare Recruitment, subsequently changed the wording on its website and declared its services were open to all. But while Rare’s ‘cut-off point’ for applicants breached the Act, it is not difficult to see the merit in what it was trying to do: give employers the opportunity to search a pool of talent that traditionally they may have ignored.

The official Labour Force Survey shows that, for men, the difference in employment rates between ethnic minority groups and the general population is just under 20%. This means services provided by the likes of Rare are vital, according to the firm’s backers.

In a letter to Personnel Today (see page 12), Sir David Bell, director for people at publishing giant Pearson and unpaid chair of Rare’s advisory board, said he was against positive discrimination but supported the role Rare wanted to play.

Important contribution
“We all have a long way to go before the management of British industry as a whole comes close to reflecting the actual make-up of modern Britain,” he said. “This is why Rare has such an important contribution to make and I am proud to support it.”

But employers with similarly honourable intentions have found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Somerset and Avon Police is being investigated by the CRE after reports revealed it had rejected 186 white applicants because its workforce was “over-represented by white men”.

Would it be so bad to allow positive discrimination if it helps to create a workforce that is more representative of the community?

This is particularly relevant for public sector services such as the police, which face tough government targets on the number of officers with ethnic minority backgrounds they should employ.

Martin Tiplady, director of HR at the Metropolitan Police, last year admitted the service did not have “a hope in hell” of getting to the 25% target the government has stipulated for his force.

The same might be said of sex discrimination. The annual Sex + Power: Who Runs Britain? survey, by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), found it would take 20 years, based on present trends, for the number of women to equal that of men in the top management tiers of the Civil Service and 40 years for equality at director level in FTSE 100 companies.

Quick fix
Positive discrimination in job selection because of gender is unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act (1975). But this begs the question again of whether or not discriminating against male candidates would be a ‘quick-fix’, allowing women to rapidly occupy jobs they thought would never be available to them.

This argument doesn’t hold water with Alison Hodgson, chairwoman of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. She believes it is much more constructive and healthy to base recruitment decisions on talent.

“Quotas are the stuff of last century. The world of work has moved on so much,” she said. “Colour is a red herring – what should be important is what skills you need to build your business.”

Fleur Bothwick is European director of diversity at investment bank Lehman Brothers, which operates in a sector that traditionally falls firmly within the category of ‘male, pale and stale’.

However, Bothwick believes this still doesn’t make a case for allowing positive discrimination, which she said could actually act as a disincentive to those it is trying to help.

“Most organisations won’t support positive discrimination and most candidates won’t either. Would you like to know you’re only in a job because of the colour of your skin?” she asked.

“Where businesses have identified a gap in the reach of their recruitment and there is specialist advice available it is worth pursuing, but not to the detriment of anyone else. It’s about finding the brightest talent from the biggest pool.”

Even the EOC, despite its damning survey findings, agrees that positive discrimination should give way to positive action.

Jenny Watson, chair of the EOC, said there were plenty of practical ways the careers of women could be advanced without resorting to active discrimination. She called for a legal requirement for employers in the private sector to promote sex equality and eliminate sex discrimination.

“This would start with a diagnostic ‘equality check’ to identify whether there is a pay gap and what action is needed to address all three causes of the pay gap: occupational segregation, discrimination and the difficulties of combining work and family,” she said.

Best practice
“This would make best practice common practice and is similar to a new duty on public sector employers expected to come into force in 2007. A change in law could accelerate the pace of change without the need for positive discrimination.”

The CBI also dismisses the idea of positive discrimination and believes the solution lies in going back and treating the earliest roots of the problem, which often stem from poor education choices and career advice.

CBI statistics on the number of people who have achieved level two English (GCSE or equivalent) in the UK are shocking. Less than half of white adults (46%) have the qualification, while only 39% of those of Indian descent have it. The figure drops to less than one in four (24%) of those from black African origins.

Who’s to blame?
Mariska van der Linden, senior policy adviser at the CBI, said: “This is a societal problem that happens before people go into employment. We have to look at it far earlier down the line.”

But she admitted employers did need help and called on the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights to focus on giving aid to employers if they did not understand their responsibilities. “It needs to be a place to go and get advice and not be seen as a place to go and get penalised,” van der Linden said.

It is clear that employers balk at the suggestion of changes in the law to allow positive discrimination and are resolute that talent is the key and not quotas. But the question still remains: if employers are truly colour-blind and immune to gender, is it acceptable to wait another generation for the education system to catch up before every jobseeker gets a decent bite of the cherry?

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