Embedding real-time DE&I in Aspire

Challenging bias in recruitment is the first step to addressing white privilege and diversity issues, says Aspire’s founder Paul Farrer

“I am white, privileged, British,” says Paul Farrer, founder and chairman of Aspire, a leading recruitment agency specialising in digital media and marketing. The married father-of-three comes from a long line of solicitors. His late father was a senior partner at Farrer & Co, best known for being the Queen’s solicitors. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, public school educated Farrer got a job at a recruitment agency, aged 23. Today he is at the top of his profession.

It was the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that made Farrer aware of white privilege, he says. “The BBC and Sky documentaries and series on BLM were a humiliating recognition of my ignorance. Even living in Battersea, South-West London, in the early 1980s, which was very Afro Caribbean, it didn’t hit my radar that people faced so much discrimination. Brixton, Toxteth, St Paul’s rioters were viewed as troublemakers and criminals. Not people who were systematically discriminated against and abused by white privilege. I watched the BLM series as I wanted to understand what I was missing, why was there all this noise and I didn’t see it. Of course not, I’m white.”

For true diversity to flourish we need to do more than just watch a few documentaries. Challenging bias in recruitment is a first crucial step, says Farrer. Aspire has become an APSCo (Association of Professional Staffing Companies) accredited inclusive employer. Farrer delivers two sessions and three hours of D&I training for all new starters as part of their induction. Commitment from the top is essential, he believes.

He said: “A leader can create the structure, environment and investment to create the change, so in my view it starts at the top, but the change comes from everywhere and it is the employees who are empowered to create the culture that they will be engaged by.”

Aspire has drawn up a new equal opportunities and diversities policy covering all employees, consultants, contractors, casual workers and agency staff. Diversity hiring is all about giving every applicant an equal chance regardless of their ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, disability or pregnancy – all protected characteristics under the law.

Farrer, who founded what is now called Aspire in 1992, said: “We have inserted diversity clauses into our terms, and everyone is clear that regardless of commercial gain we will walk away from any client that discriminates.”

Recruiters have a vital role interrupting bias during hiring. “You can anonymise CVs but the most important thing our people can do is challenge selection decisions, find out the real reason why clients are not progressing the candidate. Just asking ‘why’ often does the trick,” said Farrer.

“There are still many hiring managers out there who discriminate particularly against older candidates, ‘too experienced’, ‘overqualified’, ‘will be bored in the job’. There is also some gender bias against those of potential parenting age.” Hiring people to fit a company culture is “pure bias”, believes Farrer.

The recruitment agency boss supports positive action, such as only progressing shortlists that are diverse. He said: “The dial is moving as heads of talent have targets to recruit more people from diverse backgrounds so instead of being discriminated against as they have in the past, ethnic minority candidates are now sought after and prioritised.

“At Aspire we are deliberately targeting ethnic minority and in particular black talent – hence working with ProgrammeOne, as well as disabled candidates advertising on Evenbreak. Some people say it’s not a good time to be a white, male manager and seek a new role. That is not true, we are a long way from that.”

Farrer admits to unconscious bias in his past decision-making. Currently the board of Aspire is predominately male and white. Out of five directors only one is female and one from an ethnic minority background. Farrer established and sits on an internal volunteer D&I taskforce to close the gap.

A leader can create the structure, environment and investment to create the change” Paul Farrer, Founder and chairman, Aspire

The D&I taskforce has set diversity targets including 50% women at operating director level and people from BAME backgrounds at all levels of management by January 2023. The racial diversity target will be missed, so Aspire is looking to recruit more ethnic minority employees with a view to their progression to management.

All staff have a career pathway, access to online and face-to-face training and a personal coach. The recruitment agency has signed up to the government-run Disability Confident scheme that aims to help employers attract, recruit and retain disabled staff. But efforts to hire a physically disabled employee have so far failed.

Other initiatives include a calendar highlighting all religious festivals. Employees recently fasted for a day in support of Muslim colleagues. “It wasn’t compulsory,” says Farrer, “but those who did fast felt extraordinarily humble when considering Muslims fast for a month and we were complaining for a day. I didn’t realise you consume absolutely nothing from 4.10am to 8.20pm, no water, nothing.”

Aspire undertakes twice yearly audits to monitor performance. The taskforce meets monthly to review progress on key goals. Farrer reports to the board where D&I is an agenda item.

He said: “It’s not about ticking boxes. It’s about reflecting the communities we operate in and for. Hence our benchmarks are metropolitan areas and we use those statistics. By being more diverse and inclusive we will be more innovative and reduce unconscious bias in selection of candidates for clients.”

Why do we need diversity?

Diversity in the workforce is not only fairer but is good for business.

Research from consultants McKinsey shows that firms with more women on the executive team were 21% more likely to be profitable than average, while those in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity are 33% more likely to outperform when it comes to profitability.

Their findings in the report ‘Delivering through Diversity’ are reflected in other studies and white papers. They confirm that workplace D&I leads to:

  • better performance and productivity
  • business growth
  • improved problem-solving abilities
  • increased creativity and innovation
  • a sense of belonging that boosts employee health and wellbeing enhanced reputation as an employer
  • better employee hire and employee retention.

Under new rules, UK listed companies must publish in their annual reports whether they have met diversity targets for the representation of women and people from an ethnic minority on their boards and senior executive management teams. “Targets and quotas are blunt tools but necessary for forcing change,” says Farrer.

Image credit | iStock

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