Can positive action improve diversity during recruitment?


The head of the Welsh Public and Commercial Services Union has recently claimed that positive discrimination should be made lawful in order increase the number of black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women in employment. Whilst this is unlikely to come to fruition, employers can look to incorporate positive action in order to increase diversity at work.

Decision makers often struggle to differentiate between positive discrimination and positive action, however there are some key differences between the two. Unlike positive discrimination, positive action is lawful and allows employers to justify hiring an individual based on their protected characteristic under certain circumstances. To qualify, employers must be able to demonstrate that the individual in question is equally matched with other suitable candidates and possesses a protected characteristic that is underrepresented in their organisation.

This may prove particularly useful for organisations who are keen to improve the diversity of their workforce in order to create a more harmonious working environment and encourage original thought. Positive action can also be beneficial for addressing any significant gender pay gap, as using this method to increase the number of female employees can help reduce the average difference in pay, especially if used to recruit for senior roles. Being seen as an equal opportunity employer that embraces diversity is also likely to create a stronger company culture, making an organisation more appealing to prospective applicants.

However, for this to be successful employers will need to ensure they have reliable ways of measuring candidates’ ability as well as being able to provide sufficient evidence that a protected characteristic is underrepresented. This will be essential should any unsuccessful applicants look to challenge hiring decisions at an employment tribunal, therefore candidate scoring sheets and detailed record keeping should be an important part of the recruitment process.

Having said this there are other ways organisations can look to improve diversity during the recruitment process, including making use of multiple platforms when advertising potential vacancies to ensure news of any job openings reaches a wider audience. It will also be important that the language used in person specifications does not dissuade individuals belonging to certain protected groups from applying, such as asking for a ‘female waitress’ or a ‘young salesman’.

The way in which employers approach the interview itself can also be adjusted to improve diversity, with unconscious bias being a particular issue. In order to prevent pre-conceived ideas impacting who is invited to the interview stage, employers may choose to remove personal details such as names, age and gender from applications. This is known as ‘blind recruitment’ and will help guarantee invites are based solely on applicants’ skills and experience, rather than any protected characteristic.

Meanwhile, during the interview itself employers must ensure questions are non-discriminatory and relate solely to an individual’s ability to perform in the role. Asking questions relating to protected characteristics could lead to tribunal claims, especially if unsuccessful applicants believe their response is being used against them.

Ultimately, whilst positive action can be a great way to improve diversity employers should also review other aspects of their recruitment process to promote equal opportunities. After all, ensuring the process is fair from top to bottom should give employers a wider and more diverse range of applicants to choose from, presenting them with a greater opportunity to utilise positive action.

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