Should positive action schemes be used when hiring for senior roles?

Targeted recruitment towards demographics is more common for entry-level positions, with far fewer organisations seemingly willing to implement a similar approach for management or executive jobs. Is there a case for this to change?
C Suite Positive Action Scheme Illo Sm

Diversity, most modern and forward-thinking businesses appear to agree, matters. Being able to draw on a range of backgrounds, experiences and expertise is useful for coming up with different solutions to the same problems, as well as offering multiple insights into market or client opportunities. 

There is only one black CEO in the FTSE 100

Is a product or service suitably appealing to someone from a particular demographic? It’s easier to answer such a question if you have someone from that demographic working among your ranks. Research by the Harvard Business Review found that companies that are diverse in their employee composition are 70% more likely to reach new customer bases than firms that are not. 

As environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials become an increasingly salient metric by which investors, consumers and prospective employees, all choose to judge companies, it is important that the ‘S’ and ‘G’ components are not overlooked. An international study into staff attitudes by Deloitte found that 69% of under-40s would be more likely to stay at a company for five years if it had a diverse workforce.

The state of diversity in the UK

But there is a fine line between paying lip service to diversity and delivering it. A broadly diverse workforce does not necessarily denote diverse leadership.

The recently published Parker Review, a government-backed study of the UK’s largest publicly listed companies, found that 96% of the firms in the FTSE 100 had at least one director from an ethnic minority background at the end of 2022. While this does mark an advancement on the year before, when only 89 companies in this index met the voluntary target, it confirms that progress is a slow process. 

Four of the group still have all-white boards. Just eight CEOs are women. And only one CEO, Airtel Africa’s Segun Ogunsanya, is black.

Beyond the FTSE 100, the figures for diversity in management or leadership roles are still stark. A 2020 study by Green Park, a leadership consultancy firm, found that across the public, private and third sectors in the UK, people from ethnic minority backgrounds occupied 4.7% of senior leadership roles, despite accounting for 13% of the total population.

What is positive action?

Positive or affirmative action schemes are voluntary initiatives that companies can use to address imbalances in their employment composition relating to identifiers such as gender, socio-economic background, race and ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

It could take more than 200 years for ethnic minorities to be proportionately represented in management

These initiatives might involve writing job adverts to target particular demographics, offering mentorship opportunities, hosting an open day specifically for under-represented groups to get them involved in a specific field, or, ultimately, favouring a job candidate with a certain profile.

Positive action is lawful under sections 158 and 159 of the UK’s Equality Act 2010, on the conditions that an employer can legitimately prove that a candidate is indeed qualified for the role they are being hired for, their preference was not automatic and, in hiring them, the organisation has helped the candidate to overcome a disadvantage related to their specified characteristic. A failure to meet any of these conditions would constitute positive discrimination, which is illegal.

Positive action is more common when recruiting for junior rather than senior roles. Dr Rosanna Duncan, the chief diversity officer at Palladium, an international development advisory, says this is because “at this level, hiring managers are likely to be more flexible in terms of thinking about future potential rather than past experience.” Organisations want to build a diverse pipeline of talent, she explains, with the idea being that these candidates may go on to fill leadership positions. 

That’s the theory, anyway. But if companies wait for diversity to occur organically, they could be waiting for a long time. Another Green Park study estimated that, in the UK, it could be 2237 before people of colour are proportionately represented in management positions at work. Similarly, it is likely to be at least another 35 years before women take up 50% of chair, CEO or CFO roles, if the current rate of appointments is maintained.

A mature approach to diversity

Kul Mahay, a former police officer turned leadership consultant and motivational speaker, believes that some form of positive action could be useful at “every level” of recruitment. He doesn’t advocate for “tokenistic” hires ⁠– for example, simply drafting someone from a particular ethnicity into a senior leadership team because of the colour of their skin. Mahay urges organisations to think about diversity, primarily, in terms of people’s lived experiences, rather than incidental characteristics that have no bearing on their ability to do a job.

Reducing diversity to a box-ticking exercise about specific groups, Mahay suggests, will “serve to exclude rather than include. But recognising that every person has their own life journey, thoughts and ideas, is the true sense of what diversity is.” 

Any good board, in any sector, is introspective. What insights does it currently have? What is it lacking? Duncan says: “The end game for any recruitment process should always be attracting and appointing the best person for the job.” This means avoiding the same processes and routines “again and again and wondering why the result is the same.” 

If approached in a meaningful way, Duncan says, positive action is about levelling the playing field to ensure that opportunities are made visible and accessible to the broadest range of people possible. “It’s also about recognising and appreciating the benefits [of diversity] at an individual and organisational level,” she adds.

It is a significant challenge, Mahay notes, “to break down echo chambers, where those of a similar background and with similar experiences will likely come to similar conclusions. Just look at politics, for example.” 

While the ability to do a job must always be the deciding factor in hiring someone, Mahay thinks that exercising some degree of positive action, namely ensuring that an ample number of interviewed candidates come from a range of backgrounds, can at least help senior leadership teams to achieve “exposure” to people different to themselves.

Antoinette Willcocks, head of diversity, equity and inclusion at FleishmanHillard, a public relations firm, agrees. “If you have two very closely matched candidates, one an ethnic minority and one white, and the only difference is that one will be a better ‘fit’,” she says, “you should really be questioning what you’re prioritising and why. If you mean ‘like us’, then perhaps that’s worth challenging in line with your D&I vision, values and commitments.”

Mahay points out that positive action doesn’t have to result in an ethnic minority or woman getting a senior-level job; but a failure to progress any of their CVs definitely won’t. 

Bibi Hilton is the CEO of Creative Access, a charity focusing on diversity within the arts and media industries. She takes the same view. “The talent is there,” she says. “But companies need to cast their net wide enough to reach senior individuals… Whether that means fishing where the fish are using more diverse jobs boards, or working with external partners who inherently have an inclusive pool of talent within their networks.”

Does positive action work?

When Sodexo Engage, an online employee benefits platform, was recruiting for its CTO recently, its CEO, Burcin Ressamoglu actually prolonged the process by several months, because the initial interview shortlist presented by the hiring team did not include any female candidates.

Recognising both the competitive advantage that diversity offers to a business’s bottom line and the wider cultural importance of letting women know that leadership progression is possible, Ressamoglu says that diversity won’t happen without companies “taking responsibility. Positive action is something that businesses must do from the top down.”

Not having a single female candidate, she explains, “meant accepting that no more women were joining our C-suite before the process had even begun.”

Sodexo Engage did end up hiring a woman and Ressamoglu is confident that holding out for her was the right decision. But she also clarifies that prioritising diversity when hiring “should not mean overlooking candidates with the right skills and capabilities for the job”.

Creating an inclusive culture

Willcocks notes that recruitment is just one part of the diversity puzzle. Organisational culture, she highlights, needs to be sensitive to the times and businesses should be willing to “tweak, test and review” their workplace policies constantly.

The end game for any recruitment process should always be appointing the best person for the job

According to Hilton, fostering a sense of “collaboration” within an organisation is paramount. Allyship is crucial, she says, in making sure that diversity becomes “embedded into a company’s values rather than just being viewed as the responsibility of a select few.”

To this aim, she suggests, training plays a part in “making everyone feel included, not othered. For example, when we run training around race, we emphasise how matters of race are not just about the minorities. Once you understand your own identity, you are less likely to feel fearful and more likely and able to engage.”

Positive action, it must be made clear, is not about vilifying or alienating the straight, white, male majority. It is about appreciating the value in having different ideas and experiences at all levels of an organisation, which includes the C-suite. It is also about challenging dangerous presuppositions about people, and what they are or are not capable of, when they may have never even been given a chance.

So, should an organisation’s next member of the C-suite necessarily be black, a woman, or both? No. But should an organisation’s next member of the C-suite necessarily be a straight, white, man? Also no. Positive action is really just about proactively having an open mind.