Avoiding discrimination in recruitment is both a moral responsibility for company boards and also makes good business sense. But did you know that diversity in terms of social class and educational background is decreasing in the professions in the UK, with people educated at independent fee-paying schools now comprising 70% of finance directors, 50% of solicitors, and 45% of top civil servants (Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, 2009)? This despite independent schools only teaching 7% of our children, and 18% of children over the age of 16 (Hensher, 2012). As a result, working class students are in the minority at almost all English universities, with over 80% of students at the (arguably) ‘top’ nineteen Russell Group universities in England coming from fee paying schools and colleges (The Sutton Trust, 2008). Oxford and Cambridge present an even more extreme example: “Four private schools and one college get more of their students into Oxbridge than the combined efforts of 2,000 state schools and colleges” (Milburn 2012). This bias translates directly to entry into the professions; with 82% of barristers and 78% of judges in 2005 having studied at ‘Oxbridge’ (The Sutton Trust, 2005). I researched this topic for my masters degree at Birkbeck, interviewing lawyers in City of London law firms who had come from working class, state educated backgrounds (an increasingly rare breed). My report is available on request. You won’t be surprised to hear that these were the sort of people who had battled hard – and successfully – to overcome barriers that would not exist at all in a fair society. You may be a little more surprised to hear (or perhaps not) that strong willed, encouraging mothers played a big role in many of their lives – in many cases mothers who had been denied a good education because of lack of money in the family and therefore needed to leave school at the earliest opportunity to start work (as was the case with my mother). We may never be able to achieve the utopia of a truly fair society, but as managers and directors with responsibility for hiring people we can be aware of the problem and at least do our best to avoid propagating it. As a hiring manager and director I have been wrestling with that problem for much of my career (you can probably guess which side of the tracks I come from), and I can offer you a few tips that might help you if you want to make a difference:
- The most important step is to decide that you want to make a difference by hiring fairly. Once you make that decision, the rest follows naturally. You may find it harder to convince your colleagues – and some colleagues will never be convinced – but don’t let that put you off. You will also find that hiring fairly is much harder work than you realised.
- Look at how you recruit people and decide whether there is inbuilt discrimination (perhaps unwitting). That doesn’t mean looking at what is written into your hiring policies, but looking at how recruitment is done in practice (the unofficial process). Are you or your managers and team leaders rejecting applications because of university attended, ie not treating all universities as equal? Are you rejecting on the basis of ‘A’ level grades even though there is much research showing us that two children of equal capability will get different results depending on whether they went to a state school or an independent school? Are you insisting on a university degree of any subject – suggesting that there is no real vocational educational requirement for your empty post?
- Research methods of selection and assessment that evaluate the capability and potential of the person regardless of background. Perhaps hire an organisational psychologist who specialises in this field to advise you.
- Look at your supply chain. What practices are being employed by your external recruitment agents? Look at the adverts they are posting online. I once found one agent posting the following at standard “If you haven’t attended a red-brick university then don’t bother applying”. Just before I terminated our relationship I pointed out to him that there are only six red brick universities in the UK (all in England and all still true to their original ideals) but they do not include some of the universities to which I suspect he was aspiring (Cambridge, Oxford, University of London, Durham, Bath ….etc).
- Report on diversity by social class and educational background at your company. Take pride in telling people that you aim to reflect the make up of UK society as a whole, and not just a privileged part of society.
- Support the work of The Sutton Trust educational charity in going into state schools and opening the eyes of young people to opportunities that await them at your company.
Good luck to anyone who is doing this or wants to try and do it. I am happy to talk or correspond on the subject.