How to get positive action right

For any recruiter seeking to make their business more diverse, it can be a highly effective tool, but positive action doesn’t have the best reputation. Dr Joanna Abeyie points out the pitfalls awaiting the unwary
How To Get Positive Action Right

I was the beneficiary of a positive action scheme at the start of my career. I’ll always be grateful that the organisation in question recognised the inequities that put people from less privileged backgrounds at a disadvantage in life.

In this case, I was awarded a bursary for a course with such a good reputation that many prestigious organisations were seeking to hire its graduates. The scheme was designed to support someone from a low-income home who would struggle to pay the £9,000 course fee. I had been conscientious, proactive and entrepreneurial at school, co-founding a charity with six friends at the age of 18. This meant that, despite my socioeconomic disadvantages, I stood out in a highly competitive selection process. 

Yet even though I’ve benefited from positive action, it doesn’t make me blind to its risks. Having worked with a range of organisations, I know how easy it can be to get the process wrong.

What positive action is and how you should talk about it

The Equality and Human Rights Commission explains it this way: “Positive action is about taking specific steps to improve equality in your workplace – for example, to increase the number of disabled people in senior roles in which they are currently under-represented. It can be used to meet a group’s particular needs, lessen a disadvantage they might experience or increase their participation in a particular activity.”

One of the biggest issues affecting this otherwise noble pursuit is how it is explained to the rest of the company. Miscommunication, or a lack of communication, can cause conflict and even exacerbate the very inequities this method is trying to remove. 

Carefully consider your explanation for taking positive action. For instance, it can be helpful to explain that the firm’s traditional recruitment processes overwhelmingly and disproportionately reduce particular groups’ chances of success. Openly describing the flaws in the system can demonstrate where inequity comes from and inspire change.

Why positive action is often misunderstood

Positive action is often seen as taking certain privileges from one person and giving them to another. It isn’t that. Ultimately, it’s about giving everyone what they need to be successful in a selection process – and that looks different for different people. It’s about ensuring that all applicants are operating under similar conditions, so that when we hire someone we know that we really are choosing the best candidate, not simply the person with the profile and privileges that have eased their way through the process.

If the rationale for positive action isn’t clearly explained, it can undermine the whole initiative, particularly if this breakdown in communication leads people to question the successful applicant’s abilities. 

I vividly recall a white male colleague asking me if I’d been hired to ensure that there were more Black employees at the magazine we were working for at the time. I’m sure he meant no offence, but I immediately felt othered and couldn’t relax for the next six months I spent there. I felt that no one really rated my skills. 

In another instance, someone who’d been assigned to me as a ‘buddy’ to aid my induction would often compare me with a white intern who’d impressed her and was seeking a permanent role at the firm. My buddy made comments such as: “She has worked really hard. It’s unfair that you’re being offered things that she’s had to strive for.” 

While it was disappointing that the firm seemed uninterested in developing that intern’s potential, to suggest that I’d been given an easy ride was absurd. I’d written dozens of free articles, often walking several miles to the office and forgoing lunch because I had so little money. Moreover, I’d had to start a charity and write unpaid from the age of 16 with no financial support, just to secure the bursary that had placed me in the same talent pool as her. 

There is a saying that privilege is invisible to those who have it. The idea that having a support system that could subsidise someone’s cost of living was a privilege hadn’t even occurred to my buddy. 

I had also worked really hard to get to that point; I’d simply taken a different route. The truth was that I deserved to be there as much as anyone else did. Understanding the many faces of privilege is essential when establishing successful positive action – and it’s how we can create an environment where we practise allyship.

Making a success of positive action 

The key to effective positive action is to ensure that no beneficiary of it is seen as ‘the diversity hire’. For this reason, it is worth sharing a recruit’s bio, profile and/or CV with the team they are joining, so that they’re introduced in the context of their aptitude for the job. 

Crucially, you don’t need to advertise a positive action scheme as such. Using inclusive language; asking about access needs; using alt text; choosing imagery that conveys the myriad activities you engage in as a company; and giving insights into your organisation’s culture will tell under-served applicants that you see them. These small changes to your external approach will help you reach a broader range of people organically. 

Advertising vacancies in a variety of places and using interest groups, social channels, membership bodies and charities should also ensure that a wider range of people will see the opportunities you’re offering. Working with these groups to refine your adverts and hiring procedures will also help to make your firm as inclusive and equitable a recruiter as possible. 

Hiring fairly is only the first step

I stand by the view that everyone needs an ally. Allies don’t have to identify with any of the characteristics protected by the Equality Act 2010 and people don’t always need allies because of their identity. Sometimes they simply need peer support, understanding and compassion – and allyship is a way to show it.

If you or your organisation use positive action to level the playing field, don’t be afraid to support any recruit who benefits from it. Reiterate the purpose of this method and remind their colleagues that talent and hard work earned the successful candidate their place. Systemic bias and bad processes would have kept them out, not a lack of ability. 

Don’t shy away from actions that stimulate change when it comes to recruitment and promotion. If necessary, you should feel empowered to say: “We aren’t reflecting the whole of the potential market with our offerings and we could be failing to reach certain elements of it, owing to the make-up of our team and its culture.” 

And consider what you really want from positive action. Is it to feel that you’re doing something to improve the diversity of your business, instil equity of process or promote an inclusive culture? Will it lead to lasting change or is it a temporary fix? Could the talent you’re seeking come in, dislike what they see and decide to leave in three months’ time?

A culture that offers a ‘career without limits for everyone’ is inspiring – and it can change how a whole organisation sees itself, not just those who benefit from positive action.