The long march to equality

The oldest person who works at Cedar can remember when airlines advertised for male pilots and female air-hostesses. In Northern Ireland at that time, recruitment consultants used to draw up lists of candidates, separating the Protestants from the Catholics.The younger people who work at Cedar struggle to believe such things were ever allowed. The recruitment industry’s approach to diversity and inclusion has come a long way in the last few decades…

In fact, the history of equal opportunities in the UK goes back much further than you might think. The first “Sex Discrimination’ Act” came onto the statute books in December 1919, “… to amend the Law with respect to disqualification on account of sex … from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society (whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise).”

That particular piece of legislation wasn’t very effective (it was frequently ignored) so, much later, we had the first Racial Discrimination Act in 1965 and then a number of other Equal Pay, Race and Sex Discrimination Acts in the 1970s, followed, in 1995, by the Disability Discrimination Act. Various EU treaties on equal opportunities were then incorporated into the UK and, finally, an attempt was made to draw together all the various strands of anti-discrimination policy into the 2010 Equality Act, which governs most of our current thinking and practices.

In other words, we’ve been trying (usually not successfully) to get equality right in this country for a very long time. The problem – the reason why successive pieces of legislation have had to be passed – is, in my view, relatively simple to identify: human beings are flawed and make decisions based on all sorts of idiosyncrasies (or biases if you prefer), especially when it comes to employment.

For example, in the 1980s The Economist ran an article comparing recruitment practices in the civil service with the private sector.In the latter at that time, there was still an old boys’ network and sometimes who you knew was more important than what you knew.In private industry, one interview generally sufficed, especially if you wore the right tie or were dressed in a well-made suit from a high-quality tailor. In contrast, the civil service held several rounds of interviews and even assessment centres before deciding who to employ or promote. The Economist contrasted the latter favourably with the former…

More recently, attempts have been made to quantify people’s abilities and personalities to see how these metrics might reflect their suitability, or otherwise, for a job. Psychometric testing became popular in the 1980s, a century after it was devised, as a means of providing fairness and a more measured approach to recruitment. In France, graphology was (and still is) a popular method of divining who should, or should not, be given a job.

In more recent years, a wave of progressive thinking has crossed the Atlantic from the USA and embedded itself in UK recruitment. For its exponents, it is simply a means of ensuring that fairness takes account of all the historical and unconscious biases that have always permeated those making a decision on whom to recruit. On the other hand, there are many who regard this modern trend as pure sophistry, underpinned by a radical political agenda, usually summed up in the phrase, “woke nonsense.” Current, highly polarised debates about sex and gender make almost daily headlines in the mainstream media. Attitudes tend to vary with age, with baby boomers floundering in their attempts to understand Gen Z – and vice versa. Unfortunately, social media and its algorithms have widened the differences between many people rather than narrowed them. Some people will not work with others based on their different approaches to life, whether that’s WFH, plant/meat-eating or attitudes to sex/gender, politics or race. Whether one likes it or not, the focus on diversity, inclusion and equality has focused recruiters’ minds and led us to have to consider a far wider range of issues than ever before in order to ensure that we treat everyone fairly. Today, recruitment is a constantly shifting landscape, where many different human traits combine in a potentially explosive mix. Navigating this minefield requires constant awareness that we are, naturally, not all the same, but that, no matter who we are, we deserve equal and fair treatment when we apply for a job.

One way to do this, in theory, is to eliminate those aforementioned human flaws – the unconscious biases we all have – by introducing emotionless technology into the recruitment process. Although increasingly popular, this too has proven to have flaws, largely because it is the flawed, emotional humans who create the technology.

For example, the problems of FRT (facial recognition technology) have been well-documented, including how it struggles to distinguish differently-coloured faces, with a bias against non-white ones. FRT also identified members of the US congress as criminals.

On the other side of the recruitment coin, EstéeLauder, the global beauty products firm, decided to make some 2,000 people redundant in 2020 due to a reduction in demand as a result of the pandemic. They used FRT as part of the process.Now, leaving on one side the potentially dangerous ground of a company that trades in beauty making decisions based on the way someone looks, three female employees at Mac Cosmetics, a branch of Estée Lauder, lost their jobs as a result of automated video interviews that analysed the words they used in their answers to the questions posted and also looked at their expressions.

The three took legal action, arguing that they were not interviewed by a real person. They won and Estee Lauder settled with an out-of-court agreement. Similar technology can be used to eliminate candidates who are seeking a job rather than trying to avoid redundancy – and similar dangers lurk.

On Facebook, until very recently, you were able to target a ‘recruitment’ ad only at women or men. In fairness Facebook has tightened up on this, but I suspect that if you know how to game the system you could still do this. Yet again, human flaws, underpinned by technology do not make for great recruitment.

At the end of the day, there are three key questions. What do candidates want? What do employers want? And how do we marry these two, sometimes contradictory wants while still treating everyone fairly and with respect?

The answer, we would tentatively suggest, is not that difficult to find.It is, in a word, “fairness” – or in two words, “equal opportunities.” It’s much easier if you keep it simple. Both expressions should mean what they say. Those who strive, however, imperfectly, to deliver fairness in recruitment are all helping, in tiny, incremental steps, to get us where we all want to be. To illustrate what I mean, my next blog will look at Cedar’s own approach to diversity and how we too seek to offer fairness to everyone who applies for a job with us – and how our principles influence the way we treat our clients and candidates alike.