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Positive Action - How to get it right.

“I get what you’re saying, but why should we have Positive Discrimination, when what I want is the best person for the job?”

We hear this so often when in a discussion, seminar, or meeting focusing on diversity in recruitment and so have decided to clarify the misconceptions around the sentiment.

Let’s split up the two elements.

First: “...but why should we have Positive Discrimination…?”

Well, if you think about it we already have - just not how you might think.

Candidates for professional jobs with English sounding names are three times more likely to be called for interview than those with Muslim names according to a test carried out by the BBC in 2017. In a more rigorous study by Nuffield College’s Centre for Social Investigation GEMM Project in 2019, similar results were discovered using 3,200 fake CV’s with variations in minority background but otherwise exact experience and qualifications. Each ‘candidate’ was UK born or moved here before age 6 and had a UK education.

Even with a degree level qualification in Software Engineering, for example, men with Nigerian names had to make twice as many applications for the same number of successful responses. Applications from people with names perceived to be from the US or Europe had an equal success rate as those with ‘British’ names.

Although these studies look bad in the specifics of employment, as a society, we're moving in the right direction and attitudes are improving, right?

Yes. Well...

One of the study’s key findings is:

“Discrimination is an enduring phenomenon. When comparing the GEMM findings with those from previous field experiments conducted in Britain, we found no sign of progress for Caribbeans or for South Asians as a whole over the past 50 years.”

So there IS already positive discrimination, it’s just that it benefits the ethnic MAJORITY. So, how about reversing this trend and applying positive discrimination to people from ethnic minorities thus reversing the built-in bias? Wouldn’t that be a good idea?

Well, no. Put this way it suddenly becomes ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’, it’ll create resentment within the majority community, and frankly it’s a bit insulting. Ethnic minorities don’t need to be treated as having special needs, they need to be treated as equally valid and contributing members of society.

Positive Discrimination may be unconscious but often isn’t. It is ubiquitous and, if you continue reading, you’ll see that it is holding back our economy, our governance and our policing.

Oh, and it’s illegal.

Discrimination doesn’t just apply to ethnic minorities. It is also a factor in class differences, which is tightly connected to race (read Natives by Akala), gender and many other diversities but it is particularly chronic towards ethnic minorities.

Second: “... what I want is the best person for the job.”

Exactly. Couldn’t put it better. So why do some HR departments consistently and persistently disqualify highly qualified and motivated candidates for the simple, hard headed business case, that their names are a bit frightening or ‘difficult’ to remember or, I don’t know, start with a ‘Q’? Again, if you read Natives, you’ll get an idea of why an equally qualified ethnic minority candidate should actually be considered as a better option when you consider the position they have managed to achieve in this country against a backdrop of unrelenting discrimination starting even in school.

The funny thing (not funny haha, funny ironic) is that up to 20% of british people think that white people are the ones facing discrimination. On the plus side for Scotland, this drops to an average of 10%.

In fact, according to a survey by the TUC, Black, Qualified and Unemployed, published in 2016, unemployment rates for ethnic minorities with Masters and PhDs was 4.9% vs 1.6% for white people.

For those with ordinary and honours degrees, the figures were 6.5% unemployed vs 2.6%. It gets worse.

For those with a trade apprenticeship the figures were 28.6% vs 5.5%!

These are people with equivalent qualifications.

Again, could it really be that the only difference and the reason ethnic minorities can’t find work is the colour of their skin or their accent? Or perhaps it’s that they wouldn’t fit into the ‘company culture’ as was said to one of our candidates after failing an interview which otherwise went well (not at one of our ally companies, I must add).

For those who do find work, there is a lack of return for educational achievement or skills. 40% of African and 39% Bangladeshi employees were overqualified for their roles compared to 25% of white workers according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, Poverty and Ethnicity in the Labour Market.

In our own experience with some of our participants, there have been inexplicable / inexcusable omissions from 2nd round interviews for people we know were exceptional. Not good. Not excellent. Exceptional.

From conversations with some of our specifically black ethnic minority participants, positive discrimination would not be a welcome route into work anyway.

They expect to be hired for their skills and would be highly embarrassed to be thought of as a ‘token’ minority employee or ‘quota’ target.

As has already been demonstrated, ethnic minorities are qualified for and able to do the jobs they apply for.

They don’t need help.

That only makes sense if you believe that ethnic minorities couldn’t possibly manage on their own merit and only succeed when they are helped by the legions of employers who like losing money.

But employers, especially those who think this isn’t an issue that concerns them, need help to break down their own biases and treat people who have a different culture to be as valuable as their white counterparts.

Because this isn’t just a problem for ethnic minorities. It’s actually a problem for companies, government and society.

According to Shelly-Ann Brown on her new site,, companies with above average diversity show before taxes earnings 9% higher than those with below average diversity.

They also show 19% higher innovation revenue because people with different experiences see the same problem in different ways which means more solutions are quickly found, in turn increasing the odds that one of those solutions will be successful.

As things stand, according to a study by the LSE, the total loss to the economy caused by earnings inequality is £127bn per year! June Sarpong’s Diversify website has a nice visual breakdown of the study and it’s actually a really great starting point for us all as individuals to start looking at our own biases (don’t be shy, we all have them!).

So, it makes sense for companies to increase their diversity.

What’s the solution?

Well, you’ll be happy to know there is one and it’s pretty straight forward really.

Positive Action is the solution.

Positive Action is not positive discrimination.

It is legal and helps to rebalance the built in prejudices and biases in the current system.

Here are some simple steps:

  • when you have equal candidates for roles with equal levels of skill then employ the one who is under-represented – whether female, ethnic minority, ability etc. You should be aiming to have a company that mirrors the society in which you profit. You WANT to be inclusive. Inclusivity is good for you and for all your employees. Difference is good for your company. This is legal, fair and makes you more competitive;

  • (this is related) review the skills and qualifications of your staff, and if those from underrepresented backgrounds in the levels above are qualified, promote them as soon as a post becomes available - and don’t forget to increase their wages to match those of their counterparts;

  • attract candidates from minority groups to your company - you can do this by working with and advertising through organisations such as pRESPECT and AAI;

  • encourage applications from people from underrepresented groups by, for example, participating in outreach events;

  • providing peace / prayer rooms, if appropriate, to give employees alternative ways to recharge - their productivity will increase;

  • listen to your current employees - is there resistance? Inclusivity only works when EVERYONE is included;

  • be innovative.

We can help employers make lasting changes to their recruitment processes and in work progression that will positively impact the generations to come.

For now, a good example of implementation of a positive action strategy is that deployed by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service which we would suggest as a template for your own.

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