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University challenge | Print – Issue 159 | Article of the Week

Zahir Irani


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There continues to be significant barriers to the flow of students from different social backgrounds into the corporate world that have gone unrecognised and unaddressed. Many groups of graduates need better preparation for navigating their way through the corporate recruitment maze – because it is not the level playing-field it’s assumed to be. Diversity is not simply about setting up systems for meritocracy in recruitment to avoid challenge. Contributor Professor Zahir Irani, Dean, Management and Law – University of Bradford School of Management

In her review of race and the workplace this year, Baroness McGregor-Smith argued that bias and discrimination was continuing to hold back workers from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, despite the progress in terms of the introduction of policies and practices to encourage diversity. The first Asian woman to run a FTSE 250 company when she took over Mitie in 2007, the Baroness has called for all FTSE 250 businesses to publish details of their workforces by race and pay grade in anticipation of its making a difference. Will this help? Ensuring equality by gender and race has its own complexities, but are in many ways more straightforward to monitor and act upon. Ticking the boxes under the 2010 Equality Act provides a level of progress. Other inequalities and barriers to entry and progress through organisations, however, are just as prevalent and much harder to detect.

There is a fundamental fear of failure among students from non-traditional backgrounds, who have come from families where staying on for A-levels, going into Higher Education and then joining a high-profile business has not become familiar, expected or even perhaps an aspiration. Coming from this environment can often result in issues around confidence and identity when it comes to how students plan their future careers and where they see themselves in relation to the biggest employers. The psychological barriers – both internally created and those imposed externally by conscious or unconscious bias – come into play early on in formal education systems. As was highlighted in October 2017 via a Freedom of Information request from David Lammy MP, a quarter of University of Cambridge colleges failed to make a single offer to a black student for six years; similarly, 13 Oxford colleges didn’t offer any places to black applicants between 2010 and 2015. The majority of places continue to be filled by the traditional applicant from London and the South East. The issue of equality and diversity remains one of culture and preparation rather than necessarily ethnic background. Employers need to ask themselves, how much do they want to change and tap into this hidden talent. There are groups of students coming out of their education experience who are ‘corporate-ready’, and those that are not; those with opinions and attitudes who naturally fit with the organisational sense of who is ‘one of us’, and those that don’t.

The McGregor-Smith review headlined the economic pitfalls of limiting the career progress of BME employees: a lost £24 billion in value to the British economy. It’s an attention-grabbing figure that’s open to debate, but at least serves to solidify the range of benefits that come from encouraging just one form of diversity within a business. Businesses needs innovation from all directions, they need to better represent the diversity contained within their stakeholder groups of customers, partners and suppliers. In this situation, the traditional conveyor belts of graduates from universities aren’t necessarily delivering what’s needed – they can only help build and support more of the same. Different perspectives, challenging attitudes, ideas and voices that spring not just from different races but also from other social backgrounds and experiences are increasingly important. Tapping into new streams of talent will also be critical for addressing the problems posed by the UK’s skills gap, and the quarter of roles which employers struggle to fill (according to the UK Employer Skills Survey). There are signs of optimism, with large institutions like the Civil Service making great strides to improve diversity amongst its fast stream graduate intake.

HR need to be looking again at the culture that underpins their recruitment tactics: the language, the processes involved, and the extent to which these can exclude graduates, and the ways in which this is based on some untested assumptions. There’s a particular issue here around psychometrics, for example. It is a selection tactic used by around three-quarters of graduate recruiters last year (according to the AGR). For the average student who’s been through the grammar or private school route, this kind of exercise in an interview or at an assessment centre will be par for the course, a familiar way of thinking and answering under time pressures. For others – and in terms of my own experience working in business schools among BAME students – it’s alien, unsettling and a reason to fear the whole situation and then ‘opt-out’ of any process. Psychometric testing is quick and efficient, but also sifts out graduates with ability who aren’t fitting into corporate-shaped holes that clearly now needs to be redefined. The number of graduates leaving their university without any experience of this kind of approach and the tactics and skills involved is growing. That is particularly true given the surge in numbers of students taking the BTEC route into degree study (a rise of more than 300% between 2010 and 2013).

The University of Bradford’s Management School has worked to embed a requirement into every undergraduate programme that all students are exposed to psychometric testing, developing their verbal and nonverbal reasoning skills. The School is not so much interested in their actual scores and progress, just in giving them the knowledge [and experience] of what’s involved so they can make their own choices about career options; here we are talking about an equality of opportunity to make decisions about their own future. It’s also important, in the wider context of the diversity agenda, that business schools or any other for that matter are encouraging students to be exposed to a diversity of perspectives and characters in the protected space of a university in preparation for the wider world. Psychometric testing is an integral part of the graduate level recruitment process but should not be used in isolation to understanding ones’ background and experiences. Corporate recruitment methods in themselves are not the problem necessarily, but there needs to be more recognition of the issues on both sides of the bridge between HE and the world of work. In order to encourage better understanding, HR teams should be spending more time with non-traditional students, passing on insights into the workings of their organisation, its character and what’s expected, as well as learning more about the attitudes of students and the barriers they see between themselves and the corporate world. That includes meeting with students on the kinds of courses they would not normally target, as a useful way of broadening channels of recruits  – which continue to be narrow.

HR leaders need to think about the definition of diversity and how this impacts on policies for recruitment and for management approaches in general. Diversity as a term should be seen as much more than a means of encompassing ‘protective’ characteristics, of ensuring there’s compliance, but to be an active force for improving organisational performance – looking at diversity of opinion, attitude and background. This includes reporting and measurement, so that employee diversity should be more than a data-driven exercise and include these kinds of soft measures around culture and outlook. Line managers need awareness training to prevent unintended bias or prejudice, to allow them to question all the typical assumptions that go along with their instincts and feelings about who constitutes the “right stuff” for joining teams and promotions. And similarly, when it comes to all the work being done within HR to encourage employee diversity and to secure charter mark status, this awareness and activity needs to be moved beyond the HR function to other staff representatives able to act as champions of difference.

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