Levelling the playing field

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Making sure that we are open to attracting the widest possible range of candidates is critical

At the end of May this year, CityAm, the financial free-sheet distributed around the City of London, gave over its editorial for a day to Jayne-Anne Gadhia, the chief executive of Virgin Money. The role of women in senior roles in the financial sector was top of her agenda, for very clear reasons. As she pointed out in her editorial, while women outnumber men starting out in the financial sector, they gradually drop out through the middle management levels until you reach the ‘top table’ where just 14 per cent are women. That’s a sad indictment of the sector, but above all, when talent is in such short demand, it’s a stunning own goal. Worse, I suspect it’s reflected again and again across many other sectors of the business world.

One of Jayne-Anne Gadhia’s more radical suggestions is to link a senior manager’s bonus payments to diversity targets. It’s an idea likely to grab headlines, even beyond the financial sector. But the arguments shouldn’t just be about finding solutions to the lamentable lack of women in senior roles in banking. That remains critically important, but I’d suggest the wider agenda goes much deeper than that and at all levels of business, from the shop floor to the boardroom. Because what we are talking about here is talent, whatever its background, and ways in which we should be developing new processes which allow that talent to be recognised and rewarded.

Of course diversity and fairness should be part of the recruitment process, and rightly so. We have a legal obligation to treat all candidates for a role fairly regardless of their backgrounds. Equality for all can’t - and shouldn’t - be just a slogan. But as any woman going for a top City job knows, when she’s facing a selection panel of white, middle class males in grey suits, the playing field is far from level. It’s a situation which goes right down through organisations from top to bottom. But it is changing for the better.

Many organisations are starting to look at ‘assessing for potential’, looking not at a candidate’s educational achievements, but assessing a completely different set of attributes, including social skills and behaviours. This approach increases candidate diversity and opens roles up to lower socioeconomic groups that may not have had the same opportunities as some of their peers. Yes, a clutch of good ‘A’ levels and a degree from a good university are indicators of success, but they won’t necessarily in themselves be clear and final indicators of a candidate having the talent and the wider skills to flourish in any given role. The right talent for a role could come from anywhere at anytime, and more and more businesses are starting to see this as an opportunity to widen their candidate search and take down what might, for some potentially very bright and committed people, be obstructions to them even getting past the first stage of a job application.

Take a look at the website for EY (formally Ernst & Young). Their recruitment pages could not be any clearer: “At EY we are really interested in the kind of person you are and the things you are naturally good at.” To that end they further state that they have “removed academic qualifications from our entry criteria.” Talent doesn’t just leave university with a good degree – and more and more organisations, like EY, are recognising this and changing their application processes to reflect the way things really are.

It’s not just at graduate level either. The kind of skills needed to succeed in a busy retail environment or at the front line in a busy accounts department are not all academic. They are wide and varied, and in finding the best talent to fill those positions more and more businesses are aware that by only taking account of what someone did at school, college or university not only narrows the pool of potential talent, but sends a message to those who, for whatever reason, chose a different route in life.

This isn’t to say that you should abandon that law degree or decide that three years studying English literature isn’t valuable. It always has been and it always will be. But what it does say is that when it comes to talent the skills that make someone special are far wider, and that if we decide to limit ourselves to a very narrow range of criteria to the potential exclusion of otherwise excellent candidates, we might miss talented people who have equally valuable skills. If they can prove they have those, we should be doing everything we can to encourage and support them.

Will this solve the problem of us having only 14 per cent of women in board level positions in finance? No, of course it won’t. But by turning our attention away from more ‘traditional’ measures of success, and the usual processes used to asses that, we might just start to see that the talent we need to grow and prosper comes from a far more diverse range of backgrounds, and that can only be a good thing, can’t it?

Jon Porter is managing director of Yocto (the RPO division of TMP Worldwide)

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