Babylon makes the rules

34 years ago, a Post Office Graduate Trainee (let’s call him Simon) was sent to produce a management report on ‘why are there so few black posties in Liverpool?’*  This was only a few years after the 1981 riots, and public sector organisations and large employers were being encouraged to take action on Equal Opportunities, specifically on race at that time. The Commission for Racial Equality had produced a new code of practice on recruitment and the Post Office had then incorporated it into a new set of rules that had to be followed.

Despite the fact that the rules had been in place for almost 2 years, Liverpool, unlike some other areas, had not seen any change at all in its employee profile, which was particularly odd since the majority of the City’s black community lived within a mile or so of the main sorting office.

When I got to the Liverpool office and sat down with the recruitment team, it appeared they were following all relevant processes correctly. Staff had been trained in interviewing and there were full ‘audit trails’ from advert to appointment. There was a definite lack of enthusiasm among line managers, who found the new processes slow and bureaucratic (even by Post Office standards) at a time when they were being particularly pressured about postal performance, but they accepted that the rules were ones they had to follow. The problem, everyone agreed at the office, was that “we don’t discriminate but they just don’t apply.”

Being young and keen, and fired up with the righteous zeal of someone who’d had a Rock Against Racism badge as a teenager and owned albums by the Tom Robinson Band and Linton Kwesi Johnson, I decided to try to find out why this was. So I arranged an interview with an organisation called South Liverpool Personnel, an employment agency set up after the riots to promote job opportunities to people in Liverpool 8.

They very kindly spent an hour or so answering my naïve questions about what the Post Office did and what it could do around its recruitment processes. But the answer to the key question of why people weren’t applying was both simple and devastating. The problem was that the Post Office was seen as part of the system – there were too many people in the community who had experienced overt or covert racism at the hands of key public institutions in the city and there was a complete lack of trust as a result. Moreover, there was no sense in which the Post Office was trying to show it had changed – the black community would not go to it until the organisation made an effort to go to them.

I completed my report; got a pat on the back from the Graduate Trainee co-ordinator and was thanked by the Head of Personnel in Liverpool, who said he’d consider my recommendations ‘very seriously’. When I returned to work permanently in Liverpool, about 18 months later, I found that one recommendation had been implemented – vacancies were notified to South Liverpool Personnel at the same time as they were sent to Job Centres. The idea of trying to communicate and connect with the local community, or understand their concerns, hadn’t been taken up.

The point of this post is not to have a pop at the Post Office, it’s a reminder to the mostly white HR profession that if we are serious about challenging years of ingrained prejudice it won’t be solved by changing a few procedures, running a few unconscious bias courses and doing a bit more “ethnic monitoring”. Unless we look at radical changes to the culture of our organisations, listen to what different communities are saying and act on that – and are prepared to make this a long term project, not the current flavour of the month – in 34 years’ time people are likely to be still having the same conversation.

*The proper title was something like “A review of recruitment and Equal Opportunities in the Liverpool Head Post Office area”, but you get the point.

Time to ditch the Equal Opps questionnaire?

Some months ago I was working with a client on a recruitment project, and they provided me a copy of their “Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form”. It was certainly a comprehensive document, covering as it did around 20 different definitions of ethnic origin, a dozen major world religions, an option to declare if your birth gender was different to your current gender and five options for sexual orientation. In line with good practice the form carried a declaration that it was not part of the selection process and would be detached from the individual’s application; it was anonymous and every question had a “prefer not to say” option.

This sort of form is pretty common throughout HR departments – certainly in the UK – and it is, in my experience, genuinely used for the stated purpose, i.e. simply monitoring applications to ensure that the organisation is attracting candidates from all sections of the community. But something about it left me feeling uneasy and wondering why we are really doing this. While I have had conversations in the past about why so few women are applying for a particular role or that the company seems to have an issue attracting candidates from a minority ethnic group despite being based in an area which has a high population, I can honestly say that I’ve never had a discussion about “this vacancy seems to be attracting a large number of transgender candidates – I wonder why that is?” or “We’re not getting many Sikh applicants, do you think we’ve got a problem?”

Now that could be that as a profession we’re just not as aware of discrimination when it doesn’t involve race or sex. But it could also point to the fact that we are operating simply as data collectors in order to tick a box (and indeed in the traditional risk-averse HR way, storing the information purely as insurance against a discrimination claim: “Us – discriminatory? We’ve had 17 lesbians apply in the last 6 months”)

But my main sense of unease is the intrusive nature of the questions. We talk a lot about candidate experience and trust in employment relationships. Yet for many individuals, one of their first contacts with a potential employer is to be asked a lot of extremely personal questions – and then to believe that someone they have never met will keep their stated promise that “this information doesn’t form part of the selection process”.

Of course, without the information, organisations won’t necessarily know if we do have a problem in recruitment. But is there a better way to do it? One that better balances the company’s requirements without the need to pry into personal information that we admit is of no relevance to the role we’re recruiting for. I don’t have an answer – do you?