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  • Roger Kline

“It’s a slope not a level playing field”

The data doesn’t lie. Nor does the lived experience. Women face serious obstacles still to getting fair treatment in their careers. Black and Minority Ethnic applicants face obstacles at every turn. If you are a black women it can become a perfect storm.

I spoke recent with Dina, an experienced HR and EDI manager about her experiences in the NHS and beyond.

Tell me about you most recent recruitment experiences

"It was for Head of Diversity role to help specifically increase the number of BAME (both men and women for a large public sector organisations. A large consultancy company had been awarded the contract. I applied because throughout my career I have been successful in hiring and retaining both BAME people and women, superseding expectations, even in organisations with a bad reputation for discrimination.

"Sitting outside waiting for my interview, the only diverse staff I saw were three African staff on reception and security. When I was taken through the open plan office to get to the meeting room, I only saw white faces. The strategic team leading the project were all white and mostly male.

"It was clear from the interview questions that the two interviewers from the strategic team had no understanding or lived experience of BAME issues let alone of structural and institutional racism. Both of the interviewers were clearly surprised that a black woman could hold the senior positions I had and be successful;, even though my CV is comprehensive and outlines my senior executive experience.

"The interview was farcical. I had to do a presentation on how I would recruit and retain BAME people and women. From their surprised reaction I knew they hadn’t even considered what I had presented. They were scribbling down everything I said. During the interview I gently asked a question about the lack of Diversity and Inclusion on their website. Instead of an acknowledgement I got a defensive explanation which was palpably not true. As a bonus they forgot to ask me if I needed any reasonable adjustments."

Is that an isolated example?

"You must be joking. One route I’ve found is a shocker is applying for Diversity and Inclusion jobs via a recruitment agency. Recruitment is really sales environment. Recruiters do not need to have any work experience in the field and/or sector they are recruiting for and the conversations I have had with recruiters suggest they have little or no understanding of D&I and do not look beyond the job description and a look at the candidate’s transferable skills. I recall having a conversation with a recruiter who told me that her client wants someone with private sector D&I experience. I have experience in the public, private and voluntary sectors and certainly have transferable D&I skills.

"However, again and again I have come to the conclusion that what really counts is whether the recruiter thinks you will “fit in”. And what that usually means is that I, as a black woman, generally don’t “fit in”. My CV is comprehensive with experience and qualifications and many are surprised when they see a black woman walk through the door. 

I have worked in HR for numerous years and used recruitment agencies to recruit staff and been involved in a tender process to select a recruitment partner. In my experience they often hold a perception that BAME people are only good to work in the public sector and in junior positions. I now rarely use recruitment agencies and if I do I am very selective, this includes using them to recruit staff for me." 

Have similar things happened to friends and family?

"I’m afraid so. In fact a better question to ask might have been “have I got any family and friends this hasn’t happened to?”

"One shared experience is if you are Black is to be prepared for it to take much longer on average to get a new job than it would take an equivalent white person doing the same. Pearn Kandola explains the racial hierarchy at work

"I was recently speaking to a friend who is a black male C-suite executive who is now wants to become a Non-Executive Director. He has done the preparation with an Executive Coach to help him with the next step in his career. He has a great CV and applied for a role. To the astonishment of his coach, he wasn’t even shortlisted even though he met the specific requirements in the job specification. 

"Now I’m absolutely not saying that because a BAME person applies for a job they should be shortlisted or appointed. But there should be a level playing field and there clearly isn’t. It’s a slope".

Do you think those who behave in this way have any idea of its impact?

"Sadly no. I am due to attend a recruitment bias forum looking at how to reduce bias. It’s disappointing that in 2020 this still a topic for discussion. But with HR leading on employment I am frankly not surprised. The learnt discriminatory behaviours have been there for the last 50 years or more.

"Many business leaders often claim they are both “gender and colour blind” when it comes to recruitment and promotion. This is simply delusional given the racial and gender disparity data. True inclusion is noticing what you do notice as well as what you fail to notice.

"Noticing someone’s race, colour, ethnicity, gender, LGBTQT, child bearing age, disability is only problematic if you apply a negative stereotype to it or allow affinity bias to persuade you, for example, that young, ‘attractive’, white people are superior. Why don’t leaders (in the NHS and beyond) look around their organisations and ask, for example, “we have an (head) office in the most multicultural city (London) in the world so why doesn’t our workforce reflect this?”

"I’ve come to the conclusion that racism in employment is not going away anytime soon. I have a friend who runs a recruitment agency and she works with clients to open their minds to recruiting BAME people and has been successful changing the narrative. But Brexit hasn’t helped and given the new immigration policy announced recently it will get worse.

"Organisations are still very uncomfortable discussing race issues, so they avoid the topic. BAME staff know the impact on their health, well-being and aspirations but few employers even ask about this."

Is it worse in some sectors?

"No. It’s pretty bad everywhere. We have known for some years that some sectors are worse than others because they have made the headlines for discriminatory behaviour. I’m tired (and I’m not the only one) of organisations who may have started to address gender but are simply not making the same progress on race or disability inequality. Don’t even mention intersectionality, they can barely get their head around gender and its generally white women only when they refer to gender.

"The other day I was at a seminar on Race with distinguished scholars and a young lady shared her experiences – she has recently got a job in the creative sector in London and is the only black person in the entire company. She asked the panel of speakers for some coping skills. Come on now, we are in the 21st century and London is the most multicultural city in the world and in 2020 there is only one black person in an organisation! I have to ask HR professionals, who are the gate keepers to employment, why are they allowing racism in their organisations?

"Some sectors are now recruiting (only) entry level BAME people but not to middle/senior management. The creative sector, media, fashion industry, sport sector are just four of the sectors which have been called out about racism and discriminatory behaviour in the last few years. People are taking to twitter to share articles and experiences like never before. Conversations are flowing like Niagara Falls, peoples’ lived experiences, and sharing their outrage. 

"There is a newish campaign #Charitysowhite calling out the Charity sector for racism. The Charity sector is notoriously white, middle management/ senior executives and Trustees even through they are providing a service to the multicultural communities in the UK. I say this from my lived experience but data says I’m right"

Have you had any good experiences in seeking work?

"I’m currently seeking a job. I had a good interview and I could see that I had a connection with the interviewers, just waiting to hear the outcome. What was good is that it wasn’t an interrogation i.e. “come in, sit down we have eight questions to ask you, we will be taking notes and afterwards you will be able to ask questions” An interview should be a two way conversation. The interviewee is also figuring out if the line manager and company are right for them too, this something often overlooked by interviewers. It sometimes feels like they are doing you a favour by interviewing you. Why do some interviewers find smiling and making the environment less imposing so difficult? I have been to interviews where interviewers sat there with poker faces, leaning back, it didn’t make me want to work in the company."

What advice would you give to others having similar experiences?

"Avoid recruitment agencies but if you do use them make sure you ask them questions. Do your research on the company you are applying for. Don’t be fooled by a glossy website that shows diversity. Many of these websites are companies based in the US. I made the mistake with an engineering company, the website was very pro-diversity but the London office was not!

"Other BAME people have had negative experience of using them to find work. BAME people do talk and share their experiences with each other. People have shared their experiences of using recruiters on LinkedIn over the years, not very positive. Recruiters get very defensive instead of trying to understand the problem

"Racism is real The McGregor-Smith Review showed its scale and impact. . It is time white managers woke up to what they are missing and the impact of what they are doing".

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