Minority report: the doors are open to minority job applicants in France

Employment opportunities for people from ethnic minority communities in France are slowly improving thanks to many companies implementing outreach hiring schemes. Leah Larkin reports.

While ethnic minorities have traditionally held low-level ‘blue collar’ jobs in France, doors are now opening at senior level and for management slots.

Riots in many of France’s immigrant-populated neighbourhoods last autumn heightened awareness of the plight of ethnic minorities. But employers began to change their attitudes several years ago and started reassessing their discriminatory practices.

French law prohibits differentiating between people on the basis of colour or race. Companies are prevented from keeping records of the number of employees with minority backgrounds.

However, employers have begun putting diversity policies into practice, raising awareness and broadening recruitment procedures. Rail company SNCF, car manufacturer Peugeot, the Accor hotel group and supermarket giant Casino are all considered leaders in their campaigns to diversify.

In the financial sector, banks such as BNP Paribas and Société Générale are paving the way, as well as the financial services giant, AXA. Financial companies have an added incentive to diversity. Immigrants and their educated offspring make up a growing proportion of society. These institutions will profit if they have employees who mirror the client base.

“As our customers get more diversified, we need to have diversified teams to understand their needs,” said Sofia Merlo, head of individual career management at BNP Paribas. “We have to open ourselves to all kinds of profiles if we want to fulfill our recruitment objectives.”

Several years ago Société Générale took the bold step of piloting an annual recruitment event at a stadium in a Paris suburb with a large ethnic minority population.

Traditionally, Société Générale, as well as many French companies, looked at diplomas when hiring, and applicants with the degrees were usually white. Phelps said the bank used to limit hiring to those with a baccalaureate and between two and five years of additional study. But that’s all changed.

“We’re opening up,” she said. “We’re looking at those without a baccalaureate. This is intellectually a big shift for this country and the bank.”

BNP Paribas, which features ethnic minorities in its recruitment ads, also has a hiring programme targeted at those without a diploma. Those hired have a two-year apprenticeship scheme with the bank before being taken on in a permanent role.

The bank also initiated a new recruitment drive last year, ‘immediate interviews’, whereby candidates can apply directly in bank branches for permanent sales positions, opening up more opportunities to ethnic minorities.

In its effort to open doors to minorities, AXA introduced an anonymous online application system for sales roles. Photographs and names, clear indicators of ethnic background, are eliminated. The company appointed a chief diversity officer in 2005 and has a diversity council to support and advise senior management.

Phelps at Société Générale said employing more people from ethnic minority communities will lead to more diverse teams and innovation. “Bringing people together with different backgrounds, who don’t think alike, will have a positive impact on performance,” she said.

Merlo at BNP Paribas, agrees. “Having diversified teams favours innovation and creativity,” she said.

SOS Racisme, an organisation fighting discrimination, is working to change the mentality in France, to motivate more companies to change their ways of hiring. “Our biggest victory,” says Marelou Gambolsky, press secretary of the organisation, “is raised consciousness.”

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