Anyone who watched recent BBC2 documentary ‘How to Break into the Elite’ couldn’t have failed to be moved by the stirring, but ultimately depressing story of what seems to be the modern reality of people from different ethnic and social-economic backgrounds trying to break into the world of work. Getting a qualification, it seems, is only half the struggle for those who ‘look and sound’ a bit different from an industry’s ‘typical’ [very much in inverted commas], cohort.
The programme, which followed the story of working class men, Elvis and Amaan trying to break into the privileged world of the City, was at times difficult to watch, as confidence-lacking Amaan appeared to struggle and look out of his depth against the slick, and coached performance displayed by privately-educated ‘Ben’. But unfortunately, this is by no means an isolated case. As the government’s recently published Social Mobility Commission report revealed, just 32 per cent of people from working class backgrounds found professional jobs in 2014, and four years later, it had only risen to 34 per cent.
Even sadder was the fact that it wasn’t that these men didn’t have the skills and the qualifications needed. Far from it. What ultimately worked against them was the schools they went to, and the environment they grew up in, which meant that when they were under the spotlight and pressure of the interview stage, these people were, for want of a better phrase, ‘like fish out of water.’
With recent research showing kids from poorer schools are already on average 18-months behind their peers, for those that do succeed academically, such recruitment bias is soul-destroying. The ultimate result will be that many diverse candidates simply drop out of the recruitment process or they won’t bother to apply at all, compounding Britain’s social mobility problems and costing firms billions every year in lost talent.
What’s critical now is that employers start to communicate a far more inclusive culture through their recruitment communications and engage with underprivileged candidates in a way that builds their confidence. Digital technologies have a key role to play in facilitating this. Through our work, we’ve found that by simply offering live online group chat sessions, where candidates get to ask questions and talk directly to existing employees (including those from diverse backgrounds), companies can experience significant rises in applications from candidates who otherwise may not have applied.
We’re also increasingly working with schools and universities much earlier in the job search process, facilitating chat sessions with employers, so pre-graduating students can literally see for themselves (and get a better feel for), a company they might be interested in. Confidence can be hard to build when young, diverse people often feel they won’t ‘fit’ into the corporate peg, but chat technology means seeing really is believing. When people engage with employers, and earlier in the process, they become better informed. And it’s with more information – perhaps even through seeing an existing employee from a less privileged background presenting and interacting in a live, video-streamed Q&A session – that confidence really can be built.
Another solution that can help build a candidate’s confidence during the recruitment process is chatbot technology. Many candidates from less privileged backgrounds often worry about not speaking the ‘Queen’s English’, concerns which can be easily eliminated with anonymous, information-providing chatbots that jobseekers can access when and where they want. Candidates are free to ask the sorts of questions that they might not be confident of asking when amongst a room full of hopefuls at a typical graduate assessment day.
Something else which can make the recruitment process daunting for those from disadvantaged backgrounds is the concern that the extra challenges they have had to overcome to achieve their qualifications and skills will be overlooked. However, there are now technology solutions trying to compensate for this, including so-called ‘contextual recruitment systems’, which will re-weight grades achieved from more disadvantaged areas, to reflect the extra effort a student there will have had to put in to get them.
The benefits of using technology in these ways to attract a more diverse range of candidates are more than just moral. It makes good economic sense as well. Data from the Centre for Economic and Business Research finds organisations with more diverse workforces are 12 per cent more likely to outperform those with less diversity.
Firms like Linklaters – the Magic Circle law firm – are already leading the way with many measures to break down impediments. Not only has it introduced an innovative free ‘virtual internship’, allowing students to get a taste of the day-to-day workings there, it’s part of a broader programme called ‘Making Links’ which is aimed at reaching out to those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Such has been the success of this work, that Linklaters was recently ranked for the second year running in the prestigious, and independently assessed Top 50 Social Mobility Employer Index.
Unless more companies take up the mantle as Linklaters has done – and use technology to engage with candidates in a new, more inclusive way – millions of otherwise talented young people like Elvis and Amaan will continue to be left behind. Diversity in all its forms needs to be celebrated and encouraged. Every candidate today has a basic right to be who they are, and not have to hide their light under a bushel.