The public sector has come full circle since 1999, when the Metropolitan Police was famously accused of "institutionalised racism" by the Macpherson Report after the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
In September 2006, Gloucestershire Police was taken to an industrial tribunal for illegally rejecting 108 applications from white men. Six months earlier, Avon and Somerset Police admitted it had rejected nearly 200 white applicants. Both police forces were seeking to advance diversity.
This leaves public sector HR professionals with a dilemma. On the one hand, they're required to employ more staff from ethnic minorities to reflect the communities they serve, yet on the other, they have to comply with equality legislation.
Positive discrimination - favouring minority applicants to meet a quota - is illegal, and every person appointed to a job in the UK must be selected on merit.
Open and equal
Public sector employers must therefore work towards employing more staff from any minority by making the application process more open and equal, rather than appointing minority staff simply to make up the numbers. So how do they achieve this delicate balance? In the aftermath of the Macpherson Report, the government set recruitment targets of an average of 7% of black and minority ethnic (BME) staff for police forces in England and Wales by 2009 - though this was higher in areas with more people from ethnic minorities.
Yet a report published by the Home Office in 2005 showed that only 3.8% of police recruits were from BME backgrounds - some way off the 2009 target. And the Commission for Racial Equality reports that, where ethnic minority workers are employed in public services, they tend to be concentrated in lower-grade positions
Above the law?
Frustrated by their lack of progress, some public sector employers - including Avon and Somerset and Gloucestershire Police - have tried to recruit a higher percentage of BME staff, without taking account of the legal constraints. Such quick-fix solutions have backfired: staying within the law means taking a strategic, holistic approach.
Nana Amoa-Buahin, divisional director of HR at Lambeth Council, stresses that engaging with the various communities served by the authority, and underst