What can organisations do to address under-representation in the workforce?

people at work having a discussion

As businesses look to create inclusive recruitment processes, the Equality Act in the UK serves as the cornerstone of legal protection for people who fall within the protected characteristics - age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

Many businesses talk about “minority groups” when discussing their inclusive recruitment initiatives. But research shows that the sheer volume of candidates that would benefit from truly accessible and equal recruitment processes is higher than the term “minority group” would suggest:

  • 17.5% of people of working age in the UK have a disability. These 7 million people are twice as likely to be unemployed as those without a disability.
  • Working carers constitute 12% of UK employees.
  • Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) graduates who earned a first in their degree are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white graduates.
  • 25% of us will be impacted by mental illness in our lifetime

What can organisations do to address under-representation in the workforce?

Many talent acquisition executives can become anxious about translating the diversity and inclusion agenda into tangible action in their recruitment processes. Fear of positive discrimination policies can paralyse many from translating statements around diversity into real change for candidates. It’s important that decision makers within organisations fully understand the difference between positive action and positive discrimination, to deliver change for candidates, clients and society at large.

Positive Action vs Positive Discrimination

Positive Discrimination

The UK Government Equality Office (GEO) provides the following explanation around positive discrimination:

“Positive discrimination is recruiting or promoting a person solely because they have a relevant protected characteristic. Setting quotas to recruit or promote a particular number or proportion of people with protected characteristics is also positive discrimination. Positive discrimination is unlawful in Great Britain. However, it is important to note that it is not unlawful for an employer to treat a disabled person more favourably in comparison to a non-disabled person.”

Positive discrimination is unlawful as it seeks to address historical and systemic discrimination through a policy of reverse discrimination in favor of the minority group. As the GEO points out, exceptions are made here in terms of candidates with disabilities in that treating candidates with disabilities more favourably than those without disabilities is lawful and essential to address barriers to employment.

Positive Action

Positive action involves an employer being able to take proportionate measures to address an imbalance in their workforce. Such action is permissible from a legislative perspective and falls into two main areas of activity:

  • Development and training: Encouraging participation in training, development and mentoring opportunities to address under-representation from certain groups.

  • Recruitment and promotions: This can involve specific recruitment/attraction campaigns to address imbalances in workforce demographics. The provisions here also allow for an employer to select a candidate from a particular group (e.g., age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation) over a candidate who is not from that group as part of the recruitment process should certain requirements be met.

This is, however, only permissible if both the candidates are deemed to be of equal merit. From a resourcing perspective, the exercise of determining if candidates are of wholly equal merit can be extremely complex when comparing factors such as experience, suitability for the role, competence and qualifications.

For these reasons, many organisations focus on what positive action they can take when looking to embed the diversity and inclusion agenda in their recruitment processes.

- James Haq-Myles, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant, Resource Solutions