The risk of tokenism in recruitment: why hiring firms need a sound DEI strategy

Posted on Wednesday, June 26, 2024 by Andrea Prendergast

The push for diverse and inclusive recruitment

It’s well recognised that there’s been a collective push to drive Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) forward across the corporate world, and visible efforts are being made to instil DEI into the DNA of how organisations and their people operate, think and feel. Wonderfully, this hugely positive change is felt in recruitment too.

I’m witnessing a new generation of candidates who expect more from cultural diversity and push for better internal processes – processes which support and empower them as individuals. Equally, hiring managers are striving to reach and represent minority groups, to appeal to a wider pool of talent, which is fantastic for social impact. As well as being the ethical thing to do, it is proven that embracing different mindsets and perspectives improves decision-making and accelerates performance*

As a long-standing People-First recruitment consultancy, with in-depth experience of empowering underrepresented groups in their careers, increasingly our clients are coming to us specifically for support with their DEI recruitment strategies. And we love to see it!

The risk of rainbow-washing 

There can be a tendency for businesses to panic under the pressure of meeting ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) standards and respond with knee-jerk statements or hollow gestures, in an attempt to quickly nurture an inclusive culture and attract diverse talent. 

During Pride Month –which has recently seen a YOY rise in online participation* – swarms of logos adopt a rainbow and social pages put out positive messages to show support for, and appeal to, the LGTBQ+ community. While all responsible businesses should get behind these conversations to show allyship, raise awareness and propel the collective in the direction of equality, many brands profess to embody DEI before they’ve done the often complicated and challenging inside work of removing unconscious bias.

Recent years have nurtured a fear that businesses are “rainbow-washing”, i.e. supporting LGBTQ+ communities in their comms but failing to stand by these ethics across all aspects of their business – including the other businesses they align with. Not long ago there was backlash after one-man brand David Beckham revealed his football ambassador partnership with Qatar, where same-sex relationships are illegal*. What this did was alienate his large LGBTQ+ fan-base , strip him of his gay iconship, tar his reputation irrevocably and undermine his morals. This is an example all businesses, big and small, can learn from.

Surface-level DEI activity only truly makes a difference when the businesses behind it can demonstrate the operational backing, and be prepared to embrace and prioritise it in all their decisions. Organisations must review and, if necessary, renovate their day-to-day actions and processes - and listen to their existing teams! - before professing to be inclusive, and certainly before they can expect to attract diverse talent. A 2023 study showed that 75% of consumers believed brand activity around Pride month is solely for PR purposes*, which shows there’s a long way to go before marginalised communities believe this attested allyship to be authentic.

Before leveraging important moments like PRIDE to signal inclusion to LGBTQ+ applicants, hiring managers need to look inside their organisations and ask; What are we doing at an operational level to create equality in our business and empower all minority groups with opportunities? How are we actively working towards diversity and inclusion? Do our existing teams and stakeholders feel comfortable and included? When these things have been addressed, that is when employers are in a position to appeal to LGBTQ+ talent and other marginalised groups.

In the legal sector, we’re seeing huge progress in this area. For example, many law firms now have robust LGBTQ+ inclusive policies in place, and most are translating these into tangible actions. These efforts can be seen replicated across social mobility and racial fairness initiatives, which you can read more about in more detail in our recent blog on social mobility.

The risk of tokenism in recruitment 

Within recruitment and HR, there’s a challenge in maintaining an ethical approach to role fulfilment. Employers seeking to build diverse teams driven by a compliance checklist are wildly missing the point, because hiring people to fulfil a quota undermines the goal of embracing people equally and for their individualism. Social scientists define a token as “an employee belonging to a minority group that constitutes less than 15% of the total population in a workplace”, and in Legal (where just 3.5% of the workforce openly identify as LGBTQ+) the risk of tokenism is high. 

Not only is tokenism unethical, it's unhelpful in the long-term. Bringing someone into your team under false notions that they’re joining an inclusive organisation, when that DEI net isn’t truly there - welcoming them into a role they aren’t a good fit for - is only going to let them down and cause you future problems. Employee dissatisfaction, retention issues, a damaged reputation. As recruitment consultants, we need to pay due diligence to all our candidates and ensure tokenism isn't driving decisions, and that means specifically showing the plausible merits by which a successful applicant landed the role. 

What I look for in my candidates is not what box they tick but their potential. What are their skills and talents? What individual traits do they offer? How will they add value to an organisation? Is this the right person for this role?

Building a solid DEI recruitment strategy 

Implementing a plausible DEI recruitment strategy is potentially the most important step to building culturally diverse teams. How?

Here’s a distillation of my 26 years supporting top law firms to fill their teams with an ethical, sustainable, People-First approach.

1. Be willing to invest in your recruitment strategy. If you want something to grow, you have to nurture it. At Ryder Reid, we channel a huge amount of our consultant’s time into our unique six-step approach to talent search, and its tenacious structure empowers us to recruit from a diverse and wide pool. It’s also the method by which we can confidently hone in on each candidate – their skills, their qualities, their values – as they move through the process. DEI is embraced at each stage, and what lands the offer with the right person is whether or not they are the best person for the role. 

2.  DEI in job ads. Job ads are often what will bring candidates to you, and so to be more inclusive employers need to ensure their ads embody the DEI that’s running through their business. This includes accessible language, highlighting inclusive benefits like flexible working, specifying how the role can adapt e.g. for people with disabilities, pointing to your firm’s ESG initiatives and extra-curricular networks such as LGBTQ+ meet-ups. It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of the reader and considering how to help them feel welcome and able to apply.

3. Diverse interview panels. Candidates will feel much more welcome and warm to your organisation if they see themselves in your interview panel and careers materials, so ensure equal representation as far as is possible.

4. Implement training. As a People-First consultancy, we strive to reach underrepresented candidates, and to empower marginalised groups to overcome unconscious bias. I’d love to see more firms committing to training people into the positions they’re looking to fill. Likewise, employers should be training their internal teams, HR departments and hiring managers to remain vigilant re unconscious bias and discrimination. It’s an ongoing process.

5. But first - operations! The question “how do we appeal to more diverse groups without the representation to appeal to them in the first place?” is still hanging in the air for many hiring teams. The answer is that DEI needs to come from the inside out. The more managers and leaders who act with DEI at the forefront of their decision-making, and then talk about it online, in job ads, at interviews etc. the more candidates they will appeal to, the more diverse their teams will become. Build DEI into your company culture first. 

Making progress

Employers must foremostly recognise that building diverse cultures is not sustained by isolated acts or unfounded pledges, it is a paradigm shift in behaviour and mindset – and one which takes time to establish. To this, visible progress has been made in the legal sector! There has been a huge uptake of DEI and responsible business roles across the industry, and we’re excited to continue supporting top law firms to build diverse teams and push their businesses forward with an inclusive, People-First approach.

It takes work to establish a sound recruitment strategy, and especially one which embodies DEI and takes care to reach often overlooked candidates. Give me a call if you need a sounding board, someone to sense-check your current approach, or if you just want to pass the job to the experts. We’re here to help!

Written by Andrea Prendergast, Ryder Reid Legal co-owner and Executive Search Director. Andrea started her recruitment career in 1998 in her hometown of Liverpool. She moved to London and joined Ryder Reid in 2008, becoming a director and shareholder three years later, before buying the business in 2018 with Callum Smith, Ryder Reid Legal Business Director.

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