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Lulled into a false sense of equality | Print – Issue 159 | Article of the Week

Constance Holden

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Employee rights are so entrenched, that it is easy to slip into a complacency that everyone is now on a level playing field. Set against the organisational desire to recruit  employees for ‘cultural fit’ and suddenly, another potential for unconscious bias manifests, as employers look for employees to ‘fit in’ with the people already at the company, and reject those that don’t. Contributor Constance Holden Trainee Solicitor & Kirsti Laird, Senior Associate – Charles Russell Speechlys LLP

Productivity is increased when everyone feels part of a cohesive whole and graduate recruitment literature has generally emphasised this, encouraging candidates to see interviews and assessment days as a chance to ‘see if we are right for you and you are right for us’. However, hiring to fit the existing culture of an organisation risks that organisation becoming static and homogenous, to the point where it is, in effect, prioritising a quiet life and a continuance of the status quo over attracting the ‘brightest and best’. But who are the ‘brightest and best’? The most cursory, anecdotal glance at the current demographic of graduates in prestigious graduate schemes, ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms and Magic Circle training contracts, to name but a few, confirms a prevalence of the white, middle-class and Oxbridge/Russell Group-educated. Crucially, these graduates are often also the children of the white, middle-class and Oxbridge/Russell Group educated. The idea that these graduates uniformly represent the ‘brightest and best’ of their generation is starting to be challenged. It is becoming very difficult to contend that it has been a level playing field from birth for these young people or that their success in the journey from secondary school to prestigious graduate job is solely based on merit.

A particularly damning statistic emerged from research carried out by the Rare recruitment consultancy earlier this year: pupils who went to a group of ten schools (nine fee-paying, one selective grammar; all, unsurprisingly, based in London and the southeast of England) represent 30 percent of the applications for the most prestigious graduate schemes, meaning that they were 100 times more likely to apply than their peers who attended schools in the bottom ten, regardless of which university they went to. The issue was also brought to light recently by MP David Lammy, who blamed Oxford and Cambridge for not doing enough to attract students from state schools in poorer areas of the country, from applying, perpetuating the perceived elitism at those institutions. This criticism can be equally applied to the employers who recruit so many of their graduates from Oxbridge. While Lammy’s analysis was criticised as a little simplistic, the underlying point is essentially valid. Students from comprehensive schools, particularly in areas where ‘high-powered jobs in London’ are geographically and culturally remote, are far more likely to think that Oxbridge and the jobs available to its graduates are just not for the likes of them, notwithstanding the fact that their grades may be excellent. Many of the job-types available in cities are simply unknown, and therefore not even able to be aimed for by more rural students.

The disproportionate number of applications from graduates from a certain type of background is one problem. The second problem rears its head once applicants get through to interview. A significant proportion of this over-representation of young adults from the white middle-class can be attributed to interviews and assessment days where style is often mistaken for substance. A report by the Social Mobility Commission in 2015 summarised that for many employers, “characteristics such as personal style, accent and mannerisms are interpreted as proxies for ‘talent’, many of the most valued soft skills can be mapped on to social class background.” This can be an uncomfortable issue for HR professionals and recruiters. On the one hand, for a client-facing business it is essential to recruit candidates who will work well with and endear themselves to clients, coming across as confident and competent. It is an unfortunate fact that a lot of people still mistake a received-pronunciation accent for intelligence. First impressions are hugely important and many will contend that a company’s first duty is to make money, not to offer jobs as a hand-out. On the other hand, if the culture never changes, the talent pool of graduates will never grow. There will be fewer chances to innovate and move forward and the company will stay inward-looking. This is likely to have a noticeable effect on its ability to attract new and varied clients, never mind the bad PR that comes with being seen by competitors and as ‘old-fashioned’, or worse, ‘elitist’. It also fails to recognise that in most industries the identity of clients is also changing. Companies seem to be recognising that adding women into the board room adds skills and a perspective that are otherwise missing. However, arguably we haven’t yet realised that adding diversity of all types into the wider workforce will also add yet new skills and perspectives. By seeking to maintain company’s ‘culture’, we’re missing out on the benefits of cultural diversity. Perhaps the questions we need to be asking are, what is wrong with a company’s culture if a ‘diverse’ person doesn’t ‘fit’ and how can we change that?

Being more aware of the root causes that make social mobility a problem is a start. The basic divide between private and state schools is well acknowledged as an issue – those whose parents have the means and inclination to fork out for education (and after school activities and the networks and financial support needed for work experience) are generally more likely to be pushed by their parents to attend university and to apply for well-paid and prestigious jobs after university. A recurring theme is also that young people who have attended private school have an indefinable sense of confidence and entitlement that some of their comprehensive-educated peers do not. This stands them in good stead for interviews, where they are less likely to be intimidated by large, plush offices and potential colleagues with the same cultural references. ‘CV-blind’ interviewing, espoused by companies such as Clifford Chance and KPMG, is one solution to this. However, educating HR professionals on the importance of looking past the polished veneer of candidates is also crucial.

The country’s concentration of wealth in London and the southeast also means that school-age children outside London have vastly different experiences to Londoners with regards to role models in employment. In the legal sector, for example, there are several good social mobility initiatives already in existence. Both the Legal Social Mobility Programme and the Mentoring Works scheme bring students in state schools into certain City law firms for a week’s work experience, during which time they also gain experience of presenting and debating their opinions on current affairs and/or mentoring in preparation for university or employment. However, these schemes often focus exclusively on schools within London. HR professionals of big international companies need to look at how they can maximise their work experience programmes across the country and let students know before university that this is what they can aim for, rather than relying on word of mouth within the Russell Group.

HR also needs to be aware that times are changing. Young people no longer see a final salary or index-linked pension at the end of their careers, and even those with parental financial support are resigned to not being able to buy a house in the first 10 to 20 years of their working life. Combined with the rising cost of university, this means that millennials and the next generation are looking at university, seeing elitism and debt, and considering other options. HR professionals may need to re-evaluate selection procedures and rethink the idea of a (Russell Group) university degree as a guarantee of a candidate’s quality. Apprenticeships are now on the increase and, despite some criticism that they often involve young people working at a level below others of their age, many offer a clear career alternative to the traditional university route. At Charles Russell Speechlys we have welcomed two new Solicitor Apprentices this year in a rigorous six-year programme that will result in a law degree and qualification as a solicitor after a combination of work and study.

Above all, HR practitioners need to ensure that these new ways of thinking about graduate recruitment are not merely lip service. The most significant proportion of senior managers, directors and partners are white privately-educated men. They need to be positively engaged in these practices, given training on unconscious bias by the HR department, and where possible brought in to actively engage with candidates from backgrounds different to their own, whether through social mobility schemes or job interviews. Issues on equality within graduate recruitment are being scrutinised more in the current climate. Making sure they are front and centre of HR is always good PR, but more crucial is the need to innovate and challenge unconscious bias to combat skills shortages.

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