Jo Stansfield shares insights gleaned from a Diversity and Inclusion Roundtable event bringing together recruitment and HR professionals from across the high-tech hub that is Cambridge and its surrounding region.

Well-known for its vibrant cluster of high-tech firms, Cambridge is one of the top locations in the UK for technology businesses.  From new start-ups to tech-giants, business and academia, the city and surrounding region attract the brightest minds to develop leading innovations. 

With this backdrop, I was excited to be invited by The Cambridge Network, a membership organisation bringing people together across this tech ecosystem, to facilitate a peer group meeting on the topic of Unconcious Bias, Diversity, and Inclusion, During the Recruitment Process.  Joined by Gerald Carew, Founding Director of InterSTEM recruitment, we were eager to learn how this key discourse has progressed in our region – and by convening this forum, to share and accelerate the momentum.

Together with HR leaders, recruiters, and early careers professionals, from organisations spanning biotech, ecommerce, video games, property, and engineering domains, we settled in for a rich 90-minutes of discussion.

What makes diversity important to your business, and why?

The business case for diversity and inclusion appears well-embedded.  Moving swiftly past the generalities of greater innovation, profit and resilience, the participants quickly progressed to the topics with real bite for their businesses.  We talked about diversity and inclusion in its broadest sense, from gender and ethnicity and also encompassing diversity of background, neurodiversity, LGBTQ+, disability and personality types.  A key theme was the importance of diversity of thought in tech, to enable innovations across the sector that benefit all people.  These businesses need to attract the best people, and our participants had seen how, invariably, they come from diverse backgrounds.  These counter-stereotypical applicants not only bring new perspectives, but were seen to have highest motivation and make the most effort.

What is your organisation already doing to attract a more diverse pool of candidates?

Reducing bias in the talent acquisition pipeline is a topic I’ve previously written about.  In this new forum, I was curious to hear what had moved on, and what fresh ideas were emerging.  Some familiar ground was covered: unconscious bias training; reviewing job descriptions and adverts to ensure only necessary skills and experiences are listed; building the pipeline early by engaging in schools outreach activities.  Here again, the discussion had most bite when we got to the specifics of real experience.  Being Cambridge-based, it’s no surprise that recruitment of Cambridge University students is high – but is this really a requirement to find the best candidates?  Our participants concluded not, and the historically common practise of only recruiting from certain universities is being dropped in favour of more inclusive practices.  We talked about how “queue skipping” of recruiting friends and previous colleagues can undermine efforts to diversify the talent acquisition pipeline.  Furthermore, too much flexibility in the recruitment process can be unhelpful.  Increased efforts in forwards-planning for interviews with templates for score cards were paying dividends, resulting in improvements to decision making.  The participants also offered comment on what they saw each other’s firms doing, with one particularly interesting emergence.  Staff in one firm were highly praised for their roles as social media influencers, showcasing their role and the firm through authentic posts that had great impact to attract others.

What are your challenges, and what advice can you offer?

Despite the COVID crisis, many of these Cambridge firms have experienced rapid growth over the past year, with one doubling in size.  This has particularly posed challenges to maintain a diverse mix that had previously been achieved.  It was noted that, like elsewhere, women do not often reach the highest ranks, and mid-level women appear to leave organisations.  While London offices attract ethnically diverse candidates, this is more challenging elsewhere in the country.  With high recruitment rates, CV filtering becomes a significant challenge – how can hundreds of CVs be screened effectively and without bias?   Blind CV screening, removing demographic details or cues to identity characteristics, was a recommendation endorsed by our participants.  Other measures discussed included personality profiles to ensure a good personality mix in teams, and asking for some specific topics to be addressed in the cover letter.  This latter practise was helpful to filter out candidates who make little or no effort to tailor their application.

This led to, what became for me, the most impactful discussion of the event.  Is it possible to recruit on effort rather than experience?  Our participants concluded yes, but only in the lower level roles.  More senior roles have specific expertise requirements that could not be successfully recruited this way.  So, given that candidates from diverse backgrounds are likely to follow less traditional career paths, how then do we ensure they can reach these more senior roles?

With a spark of personal reflection, two of our participants remembered earlier difficulties they personally encountered in changing career paths, falling back to salaries too low to pay the bills.  Met by suspicion and resistance from managers, overqualified candidates can be seen as a risk, too likely to rock the boat.  How can firms overcome this fear of risk to make an offer for a candidate on a non-traditional career path?  Solutions proposed included fixed-term contracts, often seen as less risky for the firm.  For one firm, some less technical roles offer an alternative entry route – while, in this case, still enabling exceptional career progression opportunities, with one employee who followed this route now a Director.

But the real pain point comes for candidates applying for these junior roles, when, trading on candidates’ desperation to get work in the industry, firms offer salaries that aren’t liveable.  This practice selects candidates with the most privilege, those with savings or family who can help bridge the gap.  For those with less privilege, even to negotiate the salary is a greater personal risk – they can’t afford to lose the role, nor can they afford to take it.  So they accept a low offer, and live in deficit.   Simply advertising the salary with the job ad will let people know if they can afford to take the role, and save precious time for candidates.

Arising from the COVID crisis, there is opportunity to recruit exceptional talent away from office locations, where prices are more affordable.  But this is only sustainable if firms are to continue to offer continued flexibility and remote working.   In a post-COVID world, we have opportunity to build in greater equality.

Final Thoughts

We concluded the discussion with a round up of key take-aways.  Our participants shared their plans to blind CVs, to enable reviews purely on skills; and to work with agencies to overhaul the approach to high volume CV processing.   Entry level salaries had resonated with several of us, and some left affirming plans to review practices.

But looking round our virtual room, one glaring omission had remained unspoken until the end.  We as a group, all bar one, were white.  How can we effectively move dial for the tech industries without also addressing who we attract and hire for our talent teams?

Jo Stansfield

Author Jo Stansfield

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