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COVID, Inequality, and the Economic Downturn: The Barriers to Diverse Recruitment in 2020

Image: A Black person, whose nails are painted black, types on a laptop with one hand and uses a phone with the other; there are also glasses and a takeaway coffee cup on the desk.

Coronavirus is shrinking the job market across all industry sectors. With the latest ONS report showing that job vacancies dropped by 42% in March to May this year, there are concerns that those historically at the bottom of the employment roster are going to be squeezed out altogether.

The 2008 financial crisis demonstrated that economic downturns disproportionately affect underrepresented groups. According to the Business in Community Factsheet on Ethnicity and Economic Impact on COVID-19, “ethnic minority groups fared worse as a result of the 2008 recession than the white majority, exacerbating pre-existing inequalities with higher unemployment, lower earnings, lower self-employment rates and higher housing costs.” Companies that have made progress towards a more diverse and inclusive workforce may now begin to backslide, as their concerns shift toward mitigating the impact of the global COVID-19 lockdown.

Some providers are already reducing the scope of their outreach programmes.

Companies that have made progress towards a more diverse and inclusive workforce may now begin to backslide, as their concerns shift toward mitigating the impact of the global COVID-19 lockdown.

The Lloyds Scholarship, which is a pipeline to graduate employment with the banking group, has suspended enrolment for 2020. The program is open only to 1st year undergraduates with household incomes of £25,000 a year or less. This year’s school leavers will not get a chance to be fast tracked for Lloyds’ graduate schemes, unless they’re able to fund a gap year between school and university with the hope of getting in through the 2021 uptake.

In the public sector, the Civil Service has reduced its week long, in-person Early Diversity Internship Program to a two day, online-only offering.

In response to these cancelations some charities, such as UpReach, have set up specific virtual internships for disadvantaged individuals. Mehran Nisa, a recent Leeds University graduate, is participating in their Assessed Virtual Internship. She is managing to fit the internship, which is unpaid, around her full-time job at Asda. She observed, “Whilst the internship is useful, it means that I have to compromise paid working hours at my workplace to complete the internship. However, the opportunity being provided to over 1000 people provides disadvantaged students with something to do during this time.”

John Craven, CEO at UpReach, states that the role being unpaid is “a necessity in our case, [due to our] being a charity.” He states that “We optimised the times of sessions, allowed flexibility and tailored timings of project assessments and interviews to meet individual needs, allowing interns to continue with paid work or juggle other responsibilities.”

Fewer Networking Opportunities

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often lack professional networks, as much of their time is filled with either study or part time work. They rarely have the time or resources to get into the City for a careers fair and the odds are that they won’t be picking the brains of their parents’ professional friends at home dinner parties.

The importance of networking and ‘social capital’ is not a new insight. In 2016 Lou Adler, CEO of consulting firm The Adler Group, surveyed 3,000 people about how they found their job and 85% told him it was through networking.

The National Centre of Universities and Business, who broker partnerships between the commercial and education sectors, notes the importance of internships in providing networking opportunities for disadvantaged students.

“The single biggest thing to have an impact on social mobility is whether or not you’ve had a work experience opportunity.”

NCUB’s CEO Joe Marshall claims that “the single biggest thing to have an impact on social mobility is whether or not you’ve had a work experience opportunity.” This is because work placements help students to “believe that they can do that job” and, crucially, “build a network that allows them to get that job.”

UpReach’s John Craven explains how many of the ‘mass market’ virtual offerings that companies are providing are “limited in their impact. Most are only a few days long, and few offer the same benefits as in-person work experience or events [such as] networking with current employees.”

Technology as a Barrier

As well as a reduced capacity to network, virtual work spaces can lead to biases based on an individual’s surroundings. Ethnicity and household income can affect living spaces in a way in which employers deem to be ‘unprofessional.’ For example, Bangladeshi households are 15 times more likely to be crowded than White British households.

Even in the lowest weekly household income brackets (up to £599 a week), White British households are less likely to be overcrowded than households from all other ethnic groups combined. Students in poorer or more crowded homes face additional hardships, with unstable internet connections and shared computers interfering with the quality of their engagement with online programmes.

There is also an assumption that millennial graduates are all digitally native and can operate technology a lot more intuitively than older generations. However, a report from the Sutton Trust shows that 34% of children aged 5-16 haven’t had access to their own computer at home.

Being unable to develop these technical skills at an early age puts poorer people at a disadvantage.

Being unable to develop these technical skills at an early age puts poorer people at a disadvantage when they come to enter university and/or the labour market, especially when companies are relying on technological proficiency as heavily as they are right now.

Moving Forward

Diversity recruitment specialists Rare Recruitment are using a data driven approach for employers to consider candidates’ achievements in their academic and socio economic contexts. In light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, seventeen law firms have signed up to Rare’s Race Fairness Commitment, designed to help firms combat institutional racism and make their data regarding interviews, job offers, and minority retention public.

Furthermore, management consultants McKinsey & Co have committed to focusing on the development of their diversity and inclusion initiatives and are continuing to run their summer internship this year despite the pandemic. Tunde Olanrewaju, a Senior Partner at McKinsey & Co states, “We have honoured all our offers, welcomed hundreds of summer interns around the world, and continue to recruit top talent during COVID just as we did before the pandemic… In light of McKinsey’s June commitment to ten actions toward racial inclusion, we are accelerating our existing programs and adding new ones.”

Tanya De Grunwald, founder of the Good + Fair Employers Club, which counts Google, Channel 4, KPMG, and Vodafone among its members, claims that these companies are unlikely to renege on their diversity commitments. “It’s really expensive to do it properly, to really get into diversity, and it’s not just recruitment, it’s also about retention.” Ms De Grunwald says that she’s “really encouraged that they’re not about to abandon all that [investment] just because of COVID.”

While her words are reassuring, this is no guarantee that companies will follow through on these promises during such a time of financial uncertainty, especially if firms begin to view diversity and inclusion outreach as a financial burden.

[There] is no guarantee that companies will follow through on these promises during such a time of financial uncertainty, especially if firms begin to view diversity and inclusion outreach as a financial burden.

What’s more, retention issues are still prevalent in sectors such as the legal profession. Whitney Jones, a Caribbean heritage solicitor at a City Law firm observed that “retention is very much lost in the process. If you look at the people going into firms of the legal profession, and those staying in the professions, there is a big difference and firms are not doing enough to address it and it may be the case of not knowing how.”

Problems faced by low socio-economic students and ethnic minorities have been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. While most companies are saying they are committed to diversity, an updated approach to outreach is needed to tackle the new problems that have been created. It is up to employers to work with charities like SEO London, the Social Mobility Foundation, and UpReach to ensure that minority students and recent graduates are not put at a further disadvantage.

What Should Employers Be Doing? 

Contextualisation is key. Since 2016, the ‘Big Four’ in consultancy have been implementing contextualised recruitment, which has seen the recruitment of candidates that may not have achieved the minimum AAB at A-level or 2.i at degree level requirement. Considering the context in which grades were achieved allows firms to access a pool of high quality candidates that would not have fulfilled conventional entry requirements but still have the potential to be successful consultants.

Charities like the Social Mobility Foundation are working with sponsors to provide disadvantaged students with laptops, tablets and computers.

Sarah Atkinson, CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation, says that among the foundation’s findings, 20% of students reported either not having a good WiFi connection or not having their own computer. Many also mentioned not having a quiet space in which to work as a result of sharing bedrooms. Atkinson ensures that “recordings of SMF’s virtual workshops are made then distributed to students so they can watch things back in their own time.”

Training staff in mitigating their unconscious biases is vital for achieving fair assessment when interviewing virtually.

Training staff in mitigating their unconscious biases is vital for achieving fair assessment when interviewing virtually. This often takes the form of implementing a blind assessment of candidates in the early stages.

Russel Hobby, the CEO of Teach First, highlights their use of ”taking out information that is not relevant to the performance of the candidate, but might say things about their background such as their name, gender and other attributes.” This allows for employers to “judge them on the attributes related to performance,” reducing biases that interfere with identifying the most talented candidates.

The charity, which aims to tackle educational disadvantage, has recently published figures revealing BAME trainees making up 22% of 2019’s cohort compared with 15% in 2015.

A section of this article was first published in the Financial Times. Read the related article here.

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