Diversity is a word used so frequently now it has become part of our everyday vocabulary, joined at the hip with ‘equal opportunities’. But are companies in this country trying too hard to be diverse? And is the process really fair, or is it impacting negatively on some people?
What’s the story?
Less a breaking story today, more of an opinion piece. As someone who is currently applying for almost every job in my chosen career field, diversity is an issue I am very familiar with in the following context:
“This company is committed to building a culturally diverse workforce and therefore strongly encourages applications from underrepresented groups. We are committed to equality of opportunity and welcome applications from individuals, regardless of their background.”
This all sounds brilliant, but what does it actually mean? This post will look at what diversity and equal opportunities really mean, and whether or not the process to provide equal opportunities is having a positive or negative impact.
If you applied for a job ten years ago, there would be an application process, probably on paper, perhaps a phone interview, and a face-to-face interview. Now, all applications are done online, which makes life easier for employers and hopeful applicants alike. More recently, however, a whole new section has been added to these online applications. The ‘equal opportunities’ section. No sooner have you finished the application and are getting ready to send it off, than you are faced with questions about your ethnicity, religion, sexuality, possible disabilities and right to live in the country. Why though? And do they have a right to be asking all these personal questions?
Equal opportunities is all about giving people an equal chance to employment, and to protect their civil rights, regardless of their race, religious beliefs, or gender. Alongside this, large corporations are trying to demonstrate that they are diverse, by employing a range of people from different backgrounds, and not just white, middle-class brits. The companies have the right to obtain this information from you, but they are not allowed to use it in their decision process. In fact, most company HR teams don’t actually see the information you have filled out until the very end. Some processes, like the Civil Service applications, do not even reveal your name, in case that might give away your ethnic background. Recently, MI5 have hopped on the bandwagon, as the more diverse Britain is becoming, the more they need diverse applicants for their secret service missions. Gone are the days of upper-class white male secret agents aspiring to be the next Bond.
This all sounds positive. However, what we need to ask ourselves is, is it going too far to try and enforce diversity? Surely diversity should be something that occurs naturally, not something that is rigorously sought after? If companies are dedicated to offering the best applicants employment, regardless of race, sexuality, disability, etc., then shouldn’t they be ignoring declarations of all these things and only focus on the skill that the candidate presents them with?
Since the Equality Act in 2010, which legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society, companies have been jumping over each other to prove that they are more diverse than any one else, thanks to the amazing equal opportunities that they offer. It is partly to satisfy these and other requirements that companies ask these personal questions. If all is as it should be, your answers will not make a difference to your chances of employment, either positively or negatively.
But what happens when an application goes beyond just getting your statistics and directly asks why and what makes you diverse? This, I think, is a bit much.
Recently I did an application that asked me specifically what made me diverse and how I could help the company to reach a more diverse audience. This does not seem like an equal opportunity application to me. In fact, it is heavily weighted so that people from a more diverse background will be more successful. Although this is certainly a more positive balance than if an application were to weigh heavily in favour of those who were not diverse at all, this aggressive enforcement seems unnecessary.
Take two examples:
The first, a young man who was born and raised in Birmingham by his two white British parents, who were also both raised in Birmingham. His mother is a teacher, his father works for the local council. The man has worked hard all his life, getting lots of work experience and local work that will further his ambition to be a journalist.
The second, a young man who was born in India to an Indian mother and a British father. His mother does not work, and due to his father’s job he moved to America when he was young. At the age of 16 he moved to Birmingham with his parents, went to school there and scraped through. He doesn’t really know what he wants to do, but he thought he would try journalism just in case he gets in.
The one application question for a job in journalism is as follows: What makes you diverse? How would your diversity help us to reach a more diverse audience?
The first man struggles here: he does not see himself as diverse. He has lots of friends who have different ethnic backgrounds, but does that make him diverse? And how can he help the company to reach diverse audiences? He decides to put down the most creative journalistic ideas he can think of how to be attractive to people from all different backgrounds and ethnicities.
The second man is pleased: he is definitely diverse, being from a mixed-race family and having been lucky enough to live abroad when he was a teenager. He can think of lots of things that make him diverse and ways in which he can use that to his advantage.
Who would you hire? On paper (which is all the HR team will see), the second man looks great. He is diverse, and can think of lots of ways to use this to his advantage, whereas the first man has struggled to come up with the same. The first man has all the passion and the experience, but not the right answer to the question. The second man has none of these, but the right answer to the question.
Obviously the example is a bit heavy handed, but you can see where it is going…in this particular instance, the obsession with diversity has negatively impacted on the first man’s opportunity to get his dream job. Simultaneously, the company have lost out on a better candidate by negatively weighting the question. This is just an example, but you can imagine it being not far from the truth, which begs the question, are we trying too hard?
This is just the gateway into a range of different dangerous avenues….what if being British born and raised is becoming a disadvantage in Britain? Why aren’t companies simply ignoring the diversity of applicants and hiring based on skill alone, no matter their background, ethnicity, disability or sexuality? What if the country goes so far to try and be diverse that it backfires completely on those that are not so diverse? Why can’t we just let things be as they are and accept applications from everyone, then hire whoever is the most skilled and passionate rather than the most diverse?