How to improve diversity and inclusion in recruitment processes

Written by
Sarah Wild

18 Apr 2019

18 Apr 2019 • by Sarah Wild

A commitment to D&I means little if your recruitment and onboarding processes are not aligned to this goal.

For every organisation that truly embodies diversity and inclusion (D&I), there is another for which it is little more than a buzz phrase, added carelessly to mission statements and swiftly forgotten.

However, for D&I to have impact (morally or commercially), it must run through a company’s culture and strategy, with particular attention paid to recruitment – from defining role requirements to onboarding processes and beyond.

To discuss how to improve D&I in recruitment, a roundtable was convened last month by crowdsource talent platform AnyGood? – a firm committed to levelling the playing field and building solutions that are designed for extremes so they work well for all. Its CEO, Juliet Eccleston, invited diversity champions to help unearth barriers and solutions.

She began by asking participants to discuss how they would like employers and agencies to work, in order to improve diverse candidacy. This resulted in a range of insights and potential actions for organisations to take at every stage of the recruitment process.

Defining role requirements and attracting candidates

Addressing D&I involves going back to basics, attendees agreed. For example, the language and format of job adverts and specifications can exclude and disadvantage certain candidates from the outset. This is particularly true for people who are neurodiverse.

“How many times do we write job specs in a certain way because that’s how we see them all the time?” asked Yasmin Sheik, founder of training consultancy Diverse Matters.

“Question the language you use,” she urged. “Job specs regularly ask for ‘excellent communication skills’, which might not be a strength for some neurodiverse people. Does that rule them out? They have different strengths.”

Lucy Hobbs, founder of ND, a neurodiverse network for the creative and tech industries, concurred: “Companies tend to hire generalists who are good at doing everything, rather than specialists who are particularly strong in certain areas,” she said.

“Job descriptions don’t take into account the ‘spiky profiles’ of neurodiverse talent; for example, they ask for ‘big thinking’ and ‘attention to detail’, but they’re really two different pieces.”

Reinforcing this problem, tick-box application forms prevent neurodiverse people from expanding on their answers and explaining about themselves.

Formats for applications should be considered from the perspective of all candidates. While written applications can impede people with dyslexia, multimedia resources, such as videos without subtitles, can exclude people with a hearing impairment.

To engage different candidates, you need to do things differently, asserted transgender awareness and inclusion specialist Joanne Lockwood. She suggests “writing job specs in multiple ways” to appeal to a range of applicants.

However, for graduate recruitment specialist Josh Clarke, reaching out to diverse candidates must begin with organisations (and whole sectors) breaking down common perceptions and stereotypes well in advance of recruitment drives; people may believe a company isn’t for them based on its reputation and outward appearance, he warned.

“How do you change perceptions of your company? The solution is getting role models out there into the space to interact directly with the people you’re trying to attract,” he said. “This shows people from diverse backgrounds that they can succeed in a role and that the company is accessible.”

“The conversation doesn’t start with putting an advert out,” agreed Karen Beardsall, former HR director at Stonewall. “Recruitment agents say ‘people don’t apply’, but it’s about what happens before that stage.”

Selecting and assessing candidates

Staff involved in recruitment must understand and articulate their organisation’s commitment to D&I, including flexible working policies and any other relevant initiatives or credentials.

Where candidate selection and assessment is outsourced to agencies, the desire for diversity should be clearly communicated by clients, reinforced and prioritised over cost or time to hire.

“Agents should send in people who reflect the demographics of society,” stressed women’s empowerment coach Ingrid Marsh.

She believes that removing from CVs all elements that could cause bias (such as name, gender, age and schools attended) helps level the playing field for applicants since bias – both conscious and unconscious – can lead to recruiters “hiring in their own image” or rejecting candidates inappropriately based on false assumptions about what they can and cannot do.

To aid social mobility, “assessment should be geared around abilities and skills rather than backgrounds,” added Clarke, ideally involving “a diverse mix of interviewers” and inclusive questions that elicit a sense of the whole person and their unique experiences and qualities.

(The caveat here is that these should not be so open as to inhibit people with neurodiversity. ‘”Tell me about yourself’ is too general for people with autism,’ warned Hobbs.)

PwC senior business manager Mark Mesiti explained how overcoming bullying at school, and later coming out as a gay man, broadened his perspectives and helped hone his resilience and empathy: qualities he would like to be able to discuss during interviews.  

“Having recently gone through the recruitment process, there’s a lot of talk about your skills, but not about the journey you’ve had as an individual, how it shapes your behaviours inside or outside of the workplace,” he recalled.

Sheik added: “Diversity is about difference; inclusion is about bringing your whole self to work. So if D&I is on people’s value and mission statements, we should be asking about that during the interview process. I came from a fairly privileged background and qualified as a lawyer; I then had a spinal stroke at the age of 29. I’m far more proud of my journey since then than becoming a lawyer but that never gets asked.

“I wouldn’t want it asked straight off in an intrusive way,” she admitted. “But if an interviewer asked a general question, such as ‘what is your biggest accomplishment inside or outside of work?’ I could talk about all of the things I’ve learned. I’ve become a much more enlightened person as a result of this journey than by becoming a lawyer.”

Offer management – and beyond

When it comes to making job offers to candidates and negotiating terms and conditions, employers should be open to initiating changes that help people to do their best work.

While making “reasonable adjustments” for people with disabilities is a legal requirement, the way people are asked about their needs can strongly influence their response.

For example, those who are neurodiverse may not see themselves as having “a disability”, while people with non-physical disabilities may opt not to disclose these due to fears around stigma.

Sheik advised: “Rather than asking people with disabilities about the specific adjustments they need, asking every candidate a general question – ‘what can we provide you with that will help you to be more efficient and productive in the workplace?’ – may encourage disclosure. It’s sometimes about changing the way we ask the questions.”

Supporting difference means allowing people to shine rather than fit in, added Mesiti, while being inclusive involves accepting wholesale culture change and supporting ongoing evolution.

“Actively going out and looking for diverse candidates will mean that an organisation’s culture is going to change from the inside,” said Clarke. “And that’s a good thing.

“But people need to be aware that that is going to happen; otherwise there will be problems with inclusion and with retention.

“Employers bring in diverse talent and think ‘that’s done’. But it’s not done,” he concluded. “They then need to nurture that talent and allow people to be themselves within that environment – not expect them to fit into a box.”