The dangers of being over zealous in creating a diverse workforce

There are many well-documented reasons for pushing for diversity in your organisations, but beware being over-zealous in your diversity drives warns Simon Kent.

Children’s TV programme Blue Peter has been referred to the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) following a recruitment campaign which appeared to target candidates of Celtic origin by advertising a presenter’s job in regional newspapers mainly in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

According to a spokesperson at the CRE, the case was raised by a member of the public and having considered the facts the CRE has decided the campaign has not broken the law.

“There’s nothing in the legislation to prevent a company from publicising the vacancy in this way,” said the CRE’s spokesperson. “An organisation can take action to encourage applicants from diverse backgrounds, but they cannot make the actual appointment on the basis of background unless they can show job specifically requires someone with that background.”

The Blue Peter case highlights the thin line between positive action – steps taken to widen the recruitment pools, and positive discrimination – and selection decisions taken for reasons other than the candidate’s demonstrated ability to do the job.

It’s a line that becomes easy to cross when organisations set themselves the challenge of becoming a more diverse workplace.

“Employers need to be careful about the approach they take to widen the talent pool and get more candidates from under-represented groups to apply for vacancies,” said Ravinder Mahal, a senior solicitor with commercial law firm Wedlake Bell.

“Although employers can legitimately target their recruitment advertising to specific publications which are aimed at particular racial or ethnic groups, they should also advertise in more general publications with a wider target audience so as not to exclude the wider population.”

Mahal highlighted other pitfalls where employers may find their selection practices, while designed to create diversity, proving to be discriminatory.

“Specifying that applicants must have UK-based qualifications and not recognising qualifications from overseas could exclude or discourage particular ethnic groups,” he said. “Setting very rigid working days and hours could discourage working mothers or people with particular religious beliefs.”

Religious beliefs and gender considerations should also come into play when determining elements such as holiday entitlement and even dress code, Mahal said.

“Every organisation should want a diverse mix of people working for them,” said Diane Warman, diversity adviser at the CIPD, “It make clear business sense from the point of view of getting the right talent and ensuring your business attracts a diverse range of customers.

“At the end of the day all selection has to made on the basis of who is best for the job and that decision can only be made with the knowledge of what skills and competencies are required for the job.”

Warman noted the same considerations apply when it comes to recognising and promoting talent. Organisations must be aware of any element in their processes which could prove detrimental to making the right decision, but they cannot introduce special initiatives which may bias those processes, even if they are introduced in an attempt to address the balance.

“At the end of the day, creating a diverse workforce should not be about special initiatives and drives,” said Warman. “The organisation’s culture should be such that anyone with the right talent can succeed.”

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