A little while back I spoke to the Equality and Diversity Forum, and one of the ideas I floated was a change in employment recruitment practices. I thought I’d reproduce that part of my speech as it contained a few ideas I floated and which I’m particularly interested in hearing more feedback on.
So here’s the gist of what I said.
I have been struck by the experiences of two interns I’ve had in my office since becoming an MP. Both were fantastic working for me – but both had the same experience searching for work. Until they worked for me – time and time again, they sent in job applications – literally hundreds – and got nowhere, despite having appropriate qualifications and experience. But work for me as an intern – get Member of Parliament into your CV – and suddenly, doors opened and they both got the sorts of excellent jobs they deserved.
Now – somehow I don’t think than transformation was due to power of my name – I’m not that famous! But rather both have obviously non-Anglo Saxon names, and I believe what happened was that having a Member of Parliament on your CV got them beyond that initial, often instinctive and even unknowing discrimination that sees people when sorting through piles of CVs, put a large number to one side without really very much thought about each.
And really this highlights the issue that – unless you have carefully controlled employment processes – it is very easy for biases and discrimination to creep in. One of the most striking examples of this has been in orchestras, when for decades men “knew” that women couldn’t play man instruments as well as them – until blind auditions started being used. Those auditions were often introduced to block other forms of bias – so as favouritism by those running orchestras – but the result was a tackling of a much wider range of problems.
So – the conclusion I draw from all this? It’s that we should look seriously about making name-blind employment processes the norm rather than the exception. Surnames shouldn’t put you out of the employment race before you’ve even got out of the starting blocks.
Once an applicant gets to interview – the rest is down to how the interview goes. We won’t be able to take discrimination or prejudice completely out of the equation if you are being interviewed by a bigot – but your chances with most employers will be far better – being seen as a whole human who is or is not the right person for the job.
As for the mechanism – the forthcoming Single Equalities Bill provides the opportunity. I am generally sceptical about those whose first instinct is to legislate – and I think there is a strong case for putting in place voluntary agreements and best practice first, particularly concentrating on larger employers. But legislation can be used to give the powers that be the necessary targets to aim for and impetus to act, changing assumptions and habits so that name-blind employment practices become the norm.
And who knows what orchestra-like spin off benefits there may be – though I am sure there’ll be more than one or two people who, thinking of the fusses over MPs employing relatives – will think that Parliament itself may benefit from leading the way on this!
This employment issue is, of course, but one part of a much wider equality agenda. I mention it first though because I think it is particularly important for three reasons.
First – because if we are to win the battle for wider and more effective equality issues, we need to win over those who do not place a high priority on it, or who think there aren’t major issues here. Challenging discrimination in employment – so that the best person gets the jobs – is the sort of aim everyone can support.
Second – it brings benefits to all sides of the equation – both those who stop being discriminated against but also those who end up with the better staff for the job. And that win-win helps us move away from the cul–de-sac of division that arguing for one group’s rights at the perceived expense of others so often causes. We need to build a broad consensus for sustained long term success – not indulge in one group beating another over the head.
And third – because so much power comes from the economic pocket book – and breaking down discrimination in employment practices will help spread that economic power more widely amongst all our communities.