Shehrazade Zafir-Arif is a Senior Researcher in our Not-for-Profit team. She comes from Karachi in Pakistan. Tanya Stevens is a Principal Consultant and Head of our Not-for-Profit team. She comes from New York in the United States. We asked the two of them to share some thoughts and reflections on the issues of openness and inclusivity in recruitment.
“Achieving diversity in recruitment isn’t always easy – as with anything to do with people, it comes with its share of complexities and nuances. One thing I’ve learned as a headhunter is that there’s rarely a one size fits all model, and often we need to think a bit creatively beyond what we perceive as best practice.
For instance, we recently recruited a Project Manager and Counsellors for the Mental Health Foundation, to run their new Becoming a Man programme, a school-based counselling programme for young boys. It was particularly key that the post-holders be able to empathise with the diverse communities these boys came from. In order to avoid any unconscious biases from the selection committee, we undertook name-blind shortlisting by removing names and any references to race and other protected characteristic from CVs and cover letters.
Although this proved effective, we noticed that, because of the nature of the programme and the demographics it would be focusing on, some candidates’ personal experiences and stories as men of color played a strong part in their motivations. For me this highlighted an interesting catch-22: with practices like name-blind recruitment, we run the risk of erasing any sense of individuality from applications. People’s diverse life experiences and backgrounds shape and influence the narratives of their lives, careers and ambitions. To remove those is to lose something from the story behind who they are. In some cases, as with the Becoming a Man roles, aspects of this story may be what drives a candidate and allows them to bring a fresh perspective.
On the flip side, putting these characteristics at the forefront while considering an application veers dangerously towards the trap of tokenism. Tokenism turns diversity into a box-ticking exercise and creates a sense of false achievement for employers, but it’s also inherently unfair to candidates. To hire someone who has worked hard to reach where they are in their career only because they are a woman, or black, is to downplay their achievements. As such, while setting shortlist targets for diversity may seem like a useful way for a selection committee to hold itself accountable, it’s important to strike that balance between the pursuit of diversity goals and finding the most fitting person for a job.
In this way, we as recruiters, even with the best intentions, face a sort of double-edged sword. People can’t be reduced to faceless, nameless binaries, nor can they be reduced to the boxes they tick on an equal opportunities form. It’s why diversity in recruitment should be a constantly evolving conversation. It’s also one of the reasons why we stress the importance of having a diverse selection panel, to allow a platform for those intersectional perspectives that can equally empathise with candidates but also be critical of the tools being used to judge them.”
“As a charity headhunter, I love that I get to link fantastic people to mission-driven organizations. Yet I often struggled with the knowledge that, once someone is placed and onboarded, I need to step back. I wished I could be part of the lasting change in these fantastic organizations that I get to work with.
I’ve come to realise that I am, in fact, part of creating important change. In a society still challenged by profound structural inequalities, delivering truly open, inclusive recruitment helps to level the playing field, which has positive impact on societal systems. With each Board and leadership appointment Society takes on, our team has an opportunity to grow perspective and to help organizations become more sustainable and vibrant by bringing those from a diversity of lived experiences to the table.
I grew up in the 1990s in a fairly white middle class neighbourhood, but I’ve always sought to be an ally of people struggling against obstacles or prejudice. As a woman, mother and professional, I’ve experienced some gender stereotyping and pressures first-hand. But working in search for civil society, I’ve seen acutely how layering various combinations of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, economics, etc. throw up very real challenges that go far beyond recruitment. This has also made me more determined to use my role as a headhunter to support projects aimed at positive change and to run recruitments that work towards levelling the playing field.
Interested in education and community development, I recently read Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes, which chronicles Geoffrey Canada's development of the Harlem Children’s Zone. This pioneering scheme took place 30 miles from my childhood doorstep. Hearing Geoffrey’s story helped me to re-examine my own privilege and to confront that I had – and still have – a lot to learn.
Leadership in the not-for-profit sector isn’t reflective of its end users or wider society. My team and I therefore proactively build relationships with established and emerging leaders who are more widely representative and who are true allies of inclusion. It helps us find fresh talent, challenges us to be less assumptive, but it can also sometimes lead to awkward conversations.
For example, when recently recruiting Stonewall’s CEO we developed a set of interview questions for them designed to test potential in their shortlisted candidates. Like us, Stonewall is deeply committed to equity and belonging, but they queried some of the language we’d proposed around mentors and “greatest challenges”, arguing they could be seen to infer a certain level of privilege. That of course wasn’t our intention, and so we went back to the drawing board. It’s ok to feel a bit uncomfortable if it helps move your thinking forward.”
What Society does to live these values
Society takes a number of steps to run open, inclusive recruitment processes, but there are five that we feel particularly matter to all of our projects. We’d encourage you to think about them too.
Firstly, we seek to practice what we preach when it comes to recruiting and retaining people from a range of backgrounds and continually refreshing our networks in a way that prioritises diversity of experience and perspectives. You won’t find us hosting a panel that’s all white and we rarely field teams that are all male.
Secondly, we ask our clients about their track record in diversity and inclusion at the outset of every process. More diverse candidates won’t necessarily avoid an employer with diversity gaps if its honest about these gaps and the steps it is taking to change them. Organisations that have created channels to retain and nurture more diverse talent put themselves in a stronger position to attract diversity at the top.
Thirdly, we collaborate with clients to develop less prescriptive (aka limiting) job descriptions and to minimise unconscious bias in their selection panel and assessment activities. This is essential to widening any candidate pool.
Fourthly, we take time to explain the recruitment process and support all of our candidates – internal, external, seemingly ‘experienced’, or stepping up – to put their best foot forward.
And finally, we have invested in creating GDPR-compliant diversity monitoring portal that gives us rolling data on the spread of our fields over the course of every assignment. This has had real impact in allowing us to spot areas of under-representation early and to encourage applications across demographic groups that might too easily be excluded.
Does this mean that all of our shortlists will be as ‘diverse’ as each other? Of course not. But they will all be diverse in different ways; fortified by an open inclusive approach, which delivers diversity feedback that our clients can learn from. Cumulatively, this precipitates appointments of talented people from different backgrounds into positions of influence.