[Long Weekend Read]
This week’s experience of the way some employers approach selection interviews went bizarrely wrong when English Language Graduate, Ms. Olivia Bland met Webb Applications UK’s CEO, Mr. Craig Dean. Mr Dean decided to apply his own adaptation of ‘The Apprentice’and ‘I’m a Celebrity’ – Get me out of Here!’. Her tweet went viral with 121k+ ‘likes’.This went beyond a bad ‘GlassDoor’review. A BBC RadioLive5 interview followed.
In case you missed, it here is a link to an article, that will also take you to the twitter feed: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/31/stress-interviews-olivia-bland-recruitment?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other
Is it time to reflect and ask if more employers and recruitment agencies need to approach recruitment interviews as a two-way conversation and decision making process to avoid the costly mismatch and the inherent issue of racial bias in recruitment? There are several inter-connecting themes and nuances that need to be explored. So you need to be committed to a long read.
A low, uncertain employment market post-Brexit and austerity does not give anyone the right to use humiliating, bullying tactics. It’s like knowingly abusing someone in a state of vulnerability. Whether you are a young graduate like Ms Olivia Bland trying to get a foot on the corporate ladder or a mature person seeking a career change, rejection and humiliation knows no age limit.
We don’t get enough employers sharing their equivalent of ‘Organisational CV’s’ – ‘worts and all’ with supporting facts. That way candidates can make more informed decisions about whether the organisational culture and job is a good fit for their interests, skills, ambitions, and importantly their wellbeing or are they potentially entering a highly toxic culture. No one wants to recruit toxic individuals or practices, but they do come in by the front door even if its as a result of a merger. There are so many recruiters who argue for the need to assess for ‘cultural fit’ without defining or evidencing this or seeing it from the candidate (or employee) perspective.
For me the misapplication of ‘cultural fit’ both as a term in recruitment advertising and practice is a‘red flag’for discrimination in the wrong hands.
It was a pity that when I attended the In-house Recruiters Network session on 24 January 2019 held at the BMA, London: ‘Hiring for the Organisation, Not just for the Job: the Importance of Cultural Fit’the three speakers seemed unaware or unwilling to question themselves or the audience if there were any dangers with this concept or the assumption of ‘Unconscious’ Bias. Sometimes the positivist agenda and desire to be ‘liked’ to use these platforms as a way to sell a one-trick-pony solution is just too great, especially in an audience and speaker line up that was uncharacteristically, but not surprisingly homogeneous for a city like London with it’s 55.1% BME population, it out-numbers white-British (2011 Census- 4.5 million BME’s in London, three times the national figure of 20.2%). This was an event where I was the only visible person of colour in a packed room of 99% front-line recruiters, interfacing with an overwhelming white HR and line management.
The more nuanced ‘Round Table’ discussions with some of the delegates was certainly the more rewarding part in the design of the otherwise well organised event. It was an opportunity for attendees to share their challenges and perspectives (with the missing ingredient of the ‘elephant in the room’of racial bias in recruitment and the under-representation of BME recruiters).
From my experience of conversations over the years with both candidates and recruiters across multiple sectors on a range of discriminatory practices; Recruiters could certainly do with more understanding of the actual lived experience of the cultures they are acting as the shop window for. One enlightened young recruitment consultant admitted, being puzzled more of their clients did not ask them for data on the racial diversity of its recruiters or candidates shortlisted (or not), by ethnicity or other protected characteristics as they do collect the data. However, when it was suggested to internal executives in the global recruitment agency they engage with their clients on this, it was met with ‘Don’t go there!’.
Some Recruiters work on three main assumptions. One, that there is a deficit on the part of potential candidates, not themselves or their organisations/clients. Therein lies #PrivilegeFragility the arrogance of ‘I’m OK/You’re not OK’ so I can ask you to supply full disclosure, submit you to overbearing scrutiny, assessment tests, barrage of questions, forms and various pre-employment checks, but you can’t do that to me (unless you are privileged to be extremely networked with people who will give you the ‘inside story’). And by the way, I the recruiter get to select the time, duration (to meet my information needs) and venue for us to meet so you have to find a way to be there at your own cost (including getting unpaid time off from your existing employer, if you have one and the cost of buying your interview suit). If you are from a low income family this is all a huge obstacle.
Bad recruitment processes can easily be experienced as Institutional bullying and abuse of power dressed up as ‘robust, modern selection methods’. Good intentions are irrelevant in the eyes of the law or the wounded candidate. Recruiters, could definitely do with utilising the system of the ‘Mystery Shopper’ to get meaningful feedback (depending on the diversity of the ‘shoppers’) as well as auditing their recruitment processes for bias before damage is done to candidates and existing employees in the wider interests of the duty of care. But you can’t design and deliver these processes without involving the people that are continually locked out. It’s a case of decision makers having the monopoly to say: ‘We know what is discrimination, a fair process and what is not’.
The second assumption is there exists a mono-culture throughout their organisation and one that is static (by reference to the published ‘Vision and Values’ rather than sub-cultures and changing by influences from the outside) that is delivering‘high performance’(whatever that is for them).
Thirdly, their benchmark is the existing job holders and decision makers as role models of ‘Achievers’ not ‘Losers’ or‘Under-Achievers’ (something allegedly said to Ms. Bland). This means we recruit for today’s attributes not tomorrow (adaptability, resilience, inclusiveness, innovation, etc). It also means they fail to approach candidates from a position of strengths-based interviewing. There is a further failure to acknowledge the deficit of behaviours and values within their own organisation (compared to the reciprocal authenticity demanded of candidates?). You only need to look at the numerous examples of corporate scandals to know these were previously perceived as strong employer/customer brands in public but when the mask slips it tells another story. You can also see numerous Linkedin posts and tweet feeds about ‘bad bosses’ but people rarely comment on the homogeneity of these ‘bad’ bosses lest we shatter the illusion of whom we deem to make leaders (good or bad) and what they look like.
Corporate videos have become slick propaganda machines that lack supporting evidence and 99% of the time the inherent lack of racial diversity is blatantly in your face if you are not represented by an actual employee -v- a hired model or purchased Stock Image (easy to spot). It’s also difficult for the only BME used in the photoshoot to keep the video current given the issue of often being the first, only and last to be hired. No matter the disconnect to the corporate spin about ‘we are an inclusive employer’. The irony of those statements swims past the commissioners and producers of such material, without a bat of the eye lids. A case of ‘you just have to say it for PR appeal; you don’t have to mean it (or prove it)’,unless a discrimination claim is lodged.
So, when the candidate before them is literally not a ‘lookalike’they fail to recognise the diversity of talent before them. Talent walks out of the door trying to make sense of it all as there is no feedback loop to learn from and gatekeepers act as professional bystanders to maintain the status quo as there is profit in inequality. When (rejected or successful) candidates seek developmental feedback, giving it becomes problematic when nebulous notions of ‘cultural fit’are relied upon. The reluctance to give candidate feedback, is in the context of the fear of unwanted Employment Tribunal claims especially from BME candidates (internal or external). Fear stops everyone having a learning conversation and benefiting from diversity and inclusion to create sustainable organisations. Giving no feedback won’t save you; a transparent, fair and robust system increases your chances.
When candidates have a bad experience like Ms Bland and there is no feedback loop built into the process then, you risk giving candidates in this digital age no option but to run to the comforting arms of Social Media. This is where the chances of forgiveness, resolution or remedy diminish at lightening speed. An electrical storm no one can control, not even an IT company.
The focus is increasingly on low cost automated on-line recruitment and tools, making the process, remote, impersonal, one-size fits all with a pseudo infallibility of technical objectivity. Therefore whenever a recruiter seeks to strip out activities with a perceived time/cost implication for the employer, because supposedly candidates have all the time in the world to waste, they don’t. It means recruiters also don’t get trained or exposed to developing the resilience and skills for perceived ‘difficult’conversations. This amounts to short term expediency over long-term quality, cost-effectiveness and damage to the employer brand.
There is also an assumption any candidate would accept your job offer, well why wouldn’t they? How a candidate feels treated during recruitment should be an indicator for how the organisation approaches the employment relationship and notions of organisational justice post-employment. Seeking, giving and receiving feedback is how we all grow.
There are two reason Ms Olivia Bland appeared believable to 121k+ people. Firstly, it’s not an unfamiliar experience to have been bullied at work or in public after the global #MeToo movement highlighting sexual harassment across all sectors and classes of women (and men who are also effected by it). As a result we continue to hear from alleged victims of bullying (generally) but incidentally, rarely do we get insights from the alleged respondent) and sometimes this bullying occurs in the interview process. Most candidates stay quiet for fear of ruining their chances with another employer by being ‘blacklisted’(not such a fantasy fear as you might imagine).
But there is another more nuanced reason why 121k+ people ‘liked’might also have like Ms Bland’s tweet. It’s so much easier to find a white woman who cries foul during recruitment to be more believable than a black candidate [Pause before you react]. This is despite the volumes of research to support racial bias in recruitment. However, you won’t find even a modicum of this sort of empathetic outpouring for a black candidate – regardless of their intersectionality with gender.
People find it easier to agree in the abstract that racism is a social disease long over due a cure, but not even the best minds in medicine and academia or champions of diversity and inclusion clutching there Annual Awards will rarely acknowledge their part in maintaining the status quo that privileges them. That’s just ‘too close to home’.Except if you are the likes of Robin Di Angelo who is a rare white diamond who understands white identity, is prepared to acknowledge the power of white privilege and therefore the discomfort black people spot with that single raised eye brow and side-ways glance immediately they make reference to the subject of racism or white privilege, in an effort to close them down. I have known people storm out of the room at this point.
Colour is seen by white people as a black identity ‘problem’ black people have, but not something they (white people) have because they see themselves as without ‘colour’despite the census classification of ‘White-British’. The term ‘Black Minority Ethnic’ (BME) (and ‘black’ as a short cut for ‘people of colour’) is simply a socially constructed classification that allows a group of people who haves been historically and systematically subject to the social injustice of less favourable treatment on the grounds of their skin colour compared to white people (this is setting aside limitations of ‘BME’ to encompass the full range of nuances within this definition). BME’s are the recipients of this mistreatment through racism, evidenced by racial disparity in all walks of life, including education and employment. We should be beyond the data driven arguments challenging ‘Is there really evidence of racial disparity?’; or appeals for yet more data – as if logic alone is going to win the day. Instead I will ask why are still stuck at this point? Who in organisations and their supply chains remains unconvinced? Perhaps we should be putting the data spot light on them not the usual‘goldfish‘?
An article in the Guardian on 17 January 2019 by Haroon Siddique reported that “Black Britons and those of south Asian origin face “shocking” discrimination in the labour market at levels unchanged since the late 1960’s, research has found”. [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/17/minority-ethnic-britons-face-shocking-job-discrimination]
This was based on a recent study by experts based at the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. It found applicants from minority ethnic backgrounds had to send 80% more applications to get a positive response from an employer than a white person of British origin. This latest study was linked to an earlier study by the same researchers, comparing their results with similar field experiments dating back to 1969, and found discrimination against black Britons and those of south Asian origin – particularly Pakistanis – unchanged over almost 50 years. Professor Anthony Heath, co-author and emeritus fellow of Nuffield College described it as a remaining ‘burning injustice’; inviting us to question whether previous interventions are working.
I came to England from Pakistan in 1967 (my late father, a humble Carpenter much earlier having won his visa in a lottery but then not having the funds to bring his family, leading to a three-year separation from his wife and children). I was aged six upon arrival and at the age 19 I secured my first administrative level role in an all-white profession, namely Human Resources (then called ‘Personnel’) having been repeatedly rejected for the role I had actually spent two years training for within the NHS. This was at a time when South Africa still operated apartheid (until 1994), supported by the UK Government and at a time when UK HR folk and their organisations were bitterly miffed about why they had go beyond the recruitment strap-line in job adverts ‘We are an Equal Opportunities Employer’ (as if it were a statement of fact rather than faux-aspirational) to be compliant with the still to be embedded anti-discrimination laws into practice. Progress has been glacial since, being part for three generations of British-Pakistanis who arrived in the UK in the 1960’s. I am 1 of 8 siblings and a Great Aunt to 50+ children so have my own smallish data sample and lived experiences to reflect on for the last 50+ years. So if any researchers want to do a longitudinal study of the lived changes, come closer…. As a family we did not have to contend with the intersectionality of religion as much as race, gender and class – but given time that too became a challenge and we are by no means part of the monolith Pakistani-Muslims are portrayed as; progress has been made by a few of us in the family, but we are the exception not the rule. That applies to other families like us.
Black people have been talking about racism for hundreds of years and decades of living memory so they have built up the resilience to talk about the pain of humiliation that comes from unrelenting micro and macro aggressions. This is combined with suffering indifferent institutional responses through the application of systems, symbols, policies, practices and procedures that make up the living culture of any organisation. White people have not yet walked down this road. They are not wearing the right boots for the journey. They are not prepared for the stumbles and knocks; its just not their ‘cup of tea’ ‘thank you very much!’.
Everyone knows a white woman, but how many know a black woman or her everyday experience of the job market or self-employment? Hence, when black candidates complain of racial bias in recruitment, they are met with a culture of disbelief; a wall of silence and denial from all quarters. I have been told by‘friends’ “I never thought of you as ‘black’ or having a colour’.Being ‘Colour-blind’ is a misnomer. It’s OK to notice colour, it’s what you do with that information that matters. No one ever admits racism (or sexism), hence it must be inferred from the facts, within the limits of the law. White fragility kicks in as a form of abuse of power that turns the tables on the black candidate for daring to cause discomfort by the notion they or their institutional practices could possibly harbour any overt or covert racial undertone to their decision making. Calling it out becomes the ‘offence’and the myth of ‘reverse racism’ of white people comes into play.
White bystander ‘friends’/colleagues who know nothing of the actual facts that the black candidate turns to for the mistaken belief of possible solace, start to explain away their experience with, “Yeah, but…….” or ‘that was then, it does not happen any more’ – as if we are in some post-racial era with no data to support their belief. In Ms Olivia Bland’s case she is able to use her white privilege as the crushed, young, female graduate full of hope, to full advantage in being believed by thousands. She does not even have to acknowledge her privilege, let alone explain it; it simply part of her masked identity. It’s invisible because that’s the power of it – to never have to be asked to acknowledge it as a source of power. If asked about it, then the exercise of discomfort and outrage (white fragility) comes in handy. She will be fine in the end because there will be plenty of helping hands reaching out to a white damsel in distress. I certainly wish her the best for the future. This is not solely about her, but the wider issue of bullying, harassment and racial bias in the recruitment process and in the workplace to illustrate the double standards few wish to talk about.
Amongst one of my many humiliations in recruitment and other selection processes was to be shortlisted two weeks ahead by a brand employer via a global brand agency who said I was one of three candidates selected by them and the employer for a hard to fill post. Upon arrival the white Head of HR took one look at my coloured face, gave me the malfunctioning robot look, then looked down at the CV as the name did not match what was before him; no greeting offered, so I followed him into the room. I did not get invited to sit down, but decided after a few embarrassing minutes to sit anyway to await his questions.
He gave no eye contact and after a few minutes of leafing through my CV declared pompously “You are not what we are looking for!”. He showed me the door; without putting a single interview question to me – it was over in 5 minutes flat! – it must be one for the ‘Guinness Book of Record’s, surely! despite it being an often repeated experience. I walked silently in full glare of the receptionist and other white visitors I had chatted to earlier who knew the purpose of my abrupt visit.
When I reported my experience back to the white male, Recruitment Consultant (‘Tony’) at the global brand agency, that I thought it was a case of overt race discrimination the recruiter’s response was to threaten to cease to deal with me, effectively blacklisting me if I took any action against their ‘very good’ client.I was desperate for this not to happen, so took no action, but it happened anyway and the agency never contacted me again in the following years despite my approaches. They Consultant did however, continue to contact my white husband for opportunities as he rose to be HR Director of many prestigious brands, not appreciating the source of my inadvertent ‘CV Whitening’ that had got me shortlisted in the first place as a talented candidate. If things were made a little ‘better’after my married-name change, imagine what it was like before. The name change resulted in a 40% improvement in being shortlisted (but not in being selected). Whoever naively believes there is nothing in a name, needs to read the research on this, I am not alone in this experience; and sadly it continues to this day for the next generations.
In the interests of balance, my only small criticism of Ms Olivia Bland is she did not waste any time posting on twitter. Her gruelling interview was on Monday 28 January 2019, she got the job offer an hour later by telephone. She accepted it straightaway. She says it was ‘in desperation’, only to regret her decision immediately and write her letter to the Office Manager, ‘Vivienne’ setting out her experience. She asked that CEO Interviewer Mr Craig Dean should ‘not bother’ to reply to spare her feelings further. However, by the next day, Tuesday morning 29 January 2019 she was feeling ready to fight back and had posted her letter to the the company on twitter. So there was no intention to resolve this issue but to give the CEO a taste of his own medicine, be it in a disproportionately publicly humiliating way that a black candidate could only dream of risking.
Yes, it needed to be called out, but could she have waited for a reasonable time for the company to respond? Even, until the end of the week? Was her response proportionate? Was there no chance the company would/could change their practices to help other candidates (and existing employees) even if not to effect a change in Ms Bland’s decision to reject the offer. Personally, I have always believing in giving anyone a second chance. Hence I have shown openness to talk about such experiences with recruiters but rarely offered the opportunity to do so. Ultimately, it is a personal decision to walk away from a risky situation, but how you do is also something worth weighing up and attempting a dialogue after setting out your concerns, which she aptly did. Does a dosage of your own medicine have to be swallowed to feel the sense of ‘yuk!’ you never want to do it again? – possibly for some, but I would prefer not to generalise.
Is this a Win:Win, Win:Lose or Lose:Lose outcome? How will prospective employer’s/recruiters learn from this and change? How will future candidates approach a similar situation? Will anyone ever admit to being a bully or hold sexist-racist beliefs and come forward for help with a genuine desire to change? Change won’t happen in a million years unless there is an acceptance there is problem requiring change that will benefit you and others to see value in diversity and inclusion. You can either be the problem or the change – time to select!
Author: Safia Boot
© Respect at Work Limited
#Recruitment #CulturalFit #Bullying #AbuseOfPower #SnakesInSuits #Discrimination #Racism #RecruitmentBias #Lookalikes #CorporateScandals #Hubris #Talent #EmploymentTribunals #Sexism #DiversityInclusion #Equality @inhouseRecNet #BetterByDesign #CVWhitening #WhitePrivilege #WhiteFragility #Brexit #Austerity #DoubleStandards @RobinDiAngelo @RunnymedeTrust #FirstOnlyLast @oliviaabland
Published 2 February 2019
\First published Linkedin 1February 2019