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Trial by sherry – the perils of the corporate social event

Blair McPherson - former Director, Author and Blogger
five person standing while talking each other

Your organisation is LGBT friendly, your board has women on it, you have no compulsory retirement age, you take your responsibilities under the disability legislation seriously and you are on course to achieve your diversity targets and yet there is weird familiarity about the place. It’s almost as if the same people are running the place who always in the past ran the place.

The background work by the Head Hunters ( recruitment consultants) had reduced a long list of candidates to a short list of people who all had the necessary experience and qualifications to do the job. Now all that had to be decided was who the board members felt they could work with.

It’s not so long ago that I was being considered for directors posts the  selection process typically involved a social event to meet informally with board members and partner organisations. These social events could be a formal sit-down meal at which candidates changed seats after every course so as to have the opportunity to talk to each board member or a buffet in which the challenge was to balance a plate of food and a drink whilst appearing intelligent. Such events are sometimes refers to as trial by Sherry. The significance of this part of the selection process didn’t become apparent to me till a subsequent conversation with the chair revealed that all the board members were really interested in was whether the candidate came over as confident and agreeable.

Such social events are a nightmare for some candidates but something comfortingly familiar to others. It all depends on your social background.  I can say that although the senior posts I occupied required social skills, once appointed,  I never again sat down with board members for a meal and the only time I used my buffet skills in a work setting was some ones leaving do-usually my own.

Do graduate trainees still get asked which university they went to , with the implication this is significant and will some one ask what their parents do?

Change comes from top, could it be that some board members have no problem appointing someone whose sexuality or race is different to their own but doesn’t feel as comfortable with some one from a different social class!

Could it be that despite changes in attitudes, strenuous efforts counter discrimination and progressive recruitment initiatives the people in the top jobs all have a similar background. We know the top job in politics and the civil service are disproportionately occupied by Oxbridge graduates, it’s a similar story in the City and perhaps more surprisingly in the Arts and Media where the BBC is often given as an example. So is it time we recognised that social class is a significant factor in determining who gets the top jobs. And not only the top jobs since people are likely to face discrimination in the jobs market due to their social class in much the same way as people experience discrimination on the grounds of race, though negative stereotypes, generalised myths and ignorance. For example discriminating against candidates with strong regional accents.

Organisations that find ways of ignoring social class will have a positive impact on diversity and inclusivity as they will encourage recruitment of a wider range of individuals.

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