Talent should always come before ethnic background

Another week, another call for positive discrimination. And this time the call is getting louder.

Earlier this summer, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), Sir Trevor Phillips, demanded a debate on positive discrimination. The latest big hitter to get vocal on this issue is the new chair of the Ethnic Minority Advisory Group, Iqbal Wahhab. He plans to lobby the government to bring in changes to the law, otherwise it will take a century to bring the ethnic minority employment rate to an acceptable level, he claims.

It makes absolute sense to aim for employment for all, no matter what colour. The problem is how we get there. If the end cannot justify any illegal means, then what other options do employers have?

Breaking the law is not the way to do it. The fact that Avon and Somerset and Gloucestershire police forces have recently had their wrists slapped by the CRE for such practices is a case in point.

No-one should be appointed to a job just because of the colour of their skin, because they fulfil some ‘token minority’ role, or because they take the organisation one step closer to achieving its diversity quota. HR practitioners know that the chief criterion for selection should be talent. It has to be the best person for the job every time, regardless of their ethnic background.

That said, employers must still ensure that the workforce reflects the community it is serving, and seek out a diverse range of talent.

Diversity audits of suppliers – which have had some success in the US – are now becoming a pressing issue in the UK. The government has already stipulated that companies pitching for contracts to run its New Deal programme will have to prove their commitment to diversity.

One thing’s for sure: there needs to be a sensible debate about positive discrimination, as UK workplaces need to find some creative solutions. And HR needs to be at the heart of that debate.

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