We need to stop using clients as an excuse for lack of diversity

Matt Baty Matt Baty
20th September 2022

As a recruitment professional, addressing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is one of the biggest challenges we face. Balancing the often urgent (and costly) need to fill roles with the time-consuming process of identifying and presenting a broad spectrum of candidates is something that we all know we should do, yet often struggle to realise effectively. It can be even more challenging when we are operating as a proxy, either for an internal stakeholder as an in-house Talent Specialist or as a Search Consultant. Over the years we have often allowed clients’ subconscious bias or out-and-out discriminatory views shape a process under the guise of culture, team or organizational fit.

In a previous role, the client of an outsourcing partner, a major multi-national PLC with a public equal opportunities policy to rival the most progressive corners of the public sector demonstrated very different attitudes within the recruitment process. Despite outwardly professing a desire for diversity, when it came to selection decisions for senior staff within the contract had quite a different perspective. As Recruitment Manager, this put me in a very difficult position. Do I take on board the feedback that our preferred candidate on the shortlist, a woman in her mid-50s, was viewed as ‘a bit mumsy’ and go with someone less qualified, but more ‘on brand’, or do I stick to my guns and recommend an offer for the one that had passed all of our internal measures? In the end, we did the right thing, but it’s fair to say that when she started, she was under far greater scrutiny than others.

What about another ‘luxury brand’ client who privately requested ‘accent neutral’ candidates for a business-to-business contact centre? We all know what they really meant. It didn’t take a degree in beauty therapy to figure out that they meant ‘aesthetically pleasing’ to customers.

Was following their request an example of good client management, or were we contributing to the wider problem of narrowing scope of opportunities for non-white applicants?

Afterall, as recruiters, all we really do is provide options, right? Our role in steering (and to a degree, policing) diversity and inclusion can be offloaded to hiring leads, surely?

Well, no, actually.

One of my biggest regrets was not pushing back on a client for rejecting a junior sales candidate for the laziest of reasons: Client Fit. The candidate in question was a recent arrival from a war-torn African nation. He knocked on my door looking to switch my energy provider (one of several that week). He stood out, not because of his refined skills, but because of his ability to build rapport respectfully and retain a positive mindset in one of the more challenging (and exploitative) sales positions. Surely a pre-requisite for a junior position doing B2B sales is, when all is stripped aside, the ability to speak in a positive way and build relationships quickly? I introduced him to a client and attempted to manage their expectations. He was raw talent, he needed training, support and above all patience, but he could well be a good hire.

The email I received to reject him cited the fact that he hadn’t removed the ‘Machine Washable’ tag from his new suit; the one his family had bought him for the interview. This, along with his unstructured enthusiasm and strong accent were given as reasons to reject him. Apparently the client the hiring team were working with wanted shiny, ‘plug and play’ corporate types, money hungry and driven. Code, of course for male, white, competitive 20-somethings. Apparently not the place for someone desperate for a chance to change their professional trajectory.

All of my experience told me that this individual would make it. He would need a strong induction, granted, and some good training. In the first 6 months he might need more support than others. The time to value could be double that of more ‘oven ready’ hires. The payout, after that point could well be excellent.

I told myself that his strong accent would hinder him above his colleagues- he would have 1 hand tied behind his back in an already challenging role to assuage my frustration. I didn’t compare this to working in France myself (perfectly competently) or consider the 3 months it took me to polish my communication skills in a second language. It didn’t occur to me to factor in the impact that overcoming those struggles could have on his work ethic, as it did mine in France. In other words, I followed my clients instruction and became complicit in something I didn’t agree with. Whoever was at ultimately at fault (my client’s client was ultimately responsible for the unwritten rule about who they wanted on their account), each component of the process hid behind the other to justify a discriminatory (and in my view wrong) decision. What made it even worse was the candidate offered the position had even less experience, clearly came from a privileged background and was assumed to be a good team fit. They were let go within 3 months for poor performance, much of which was attitudinal.

By taking a clear brief, challenging pre-requisites, distilling nebulous concepts into actionable facts and leading either an internal or external client down a path of skills ‘fit’ over ‘cultural fit’, we can influence the way clients see a candidate. Then, with careful measurement and diligent reporting, we can position candidates in such a way to divert the focus from physical presentation, and more towards skills audit. Will that get a placement? Not always; unconscious bias remains a barrier in many processes, but it does at least help further the conversation both on a micro and macro level. Would it have changed the outcome for my candidate from Africa? Unlikely, however we could have given him some meaningful and useful feedback to help him next time around.

Despite all the research and evidence pointing to the ineffectiveness of interviews as a selection tool, they remain a mainstay in the majority of hiring processes. Many organisations now remove names and genders from application forms, but a lot of the process still involves people meeting, virtually or in person where despite the carefully planned questions, a complex subconscious series of judgements takes place. Do they look and feel like the people around me? Do they communicate in a way that mirrors our world? Does their background support the decision to hire or reject? Do I like them? All of these factors massively hinder those from atypical backgrounds (professionally or socially) from getting the role.

And we often, despite that little bird on our shoulder reminding us to proactively consider diversity as a positive, use clients and their preferences as the reason for making a decision not to hire. Many organisations (and I have seen this first hand more often that I care to admit) absolve their consciences by putting their own clients’ culture ahead of their professional instincts. In search, we can subconsciously turn a blind eye because we depend on securing offers for our livelihoods.

If a client’s environment is not ready for, or accepting of diversity then ‘team fit’ is often the backstop used to reject them. This is even more problematic when, increasingly, corporates and recruiters are refusing to give meaningful feedback to candidates, scared that they will be called out for discrimination. Well, news flash, if you cannot give a candidate straight and honest feedback and you feel concerned about this decision, perhaps you are also feeding the beast?

I don’t think for a minute that we should hire just anyone. Actually team fit, when understood and assessed correctly is a perfectly valid reason to choose between two comparably qualified candidates. However, let’s not hide behind the decisions of others, and at the very least, take the time to support and advise both those making hiring decisions, and those we are rejecting.

Accusing a client of discriminatory practice is unlikely to end well, but let’s stop excusing what we know to be bad practice, and, by proxy, assimilating some of it. The more we challenge each other, seek to find new and better ways to make decisions, the better it’ll get, even if that does sometimes result in lost opportunities, or fractured relationships.

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