As we fight the uphill battle against Recruitment’s dire reputation by striving to provide the best service we can and be as ethical and incisive as possible, we do occasionally come across an instruction from the client side that never fails to shock me. I’m sure it’s something that many Recruiters will recognise, a little throwaway comment that is couched in a joke and a twinkling smile but is actually as concrete an instruction as any of the immovables on the brief.
It sometimes happens at the start of the project when you’re identifying what the requirement is, or maybe a little later when you’re updating a client on the progress of a search assignment. This week it happened just after presenting our shortlist. We finished talking through our candidates, and we were feeling pretty proud of those we had found. They are great, exclusive candidates who are really bought in to the opportunity and are very close to the profile we were asked to look for. They offer a number of different answers to the same question. And the client seemed quite pleased, immediately wanting to meet three of them without us even having to justify their inclusion further.
But then there was a mischievous smile, an exchange of glances, and they said, ‘Hmmmm. We were hoping for more women.’ They then left something of a pause for effect. There may have been an expectant raised eyebrow.
Apparently, it’s a very male dominated team they’ve got and they would like a woman to add a bit of balance. Of our three candidates they want to meet, there is one woman. In some hugely male-dominated fields, that’s a very good average.
Given that this wasn’t a retained assignment, we covered the market pretty well I’d say and we’d done our homework. We had identified nearly 200 people, and spoken to the vast majority of those about the role. Needless to say, most of those 200 were men. The sad truth is that there still aren’t as many women in senior positions as there are men, hence the stats are loaded against a female-heavy shortlist, despite what our client or us or anyone else might want. The purpose I work towards is delivering a group of candidates who are ideally matched to the demands of the role, regardless of race, sex, gender, sexuality, age, and all the rest of those. These are people who are experts in their field, at the top of their game, and I think would provide an excellent match.
But Recruiters all know that this sometimes isn’t what we’re really being asked to do. And issues of sex, gender, race and age are not things our clients can ignore. These are genuine diversity issues that they have to address that impact on who the best candidate is. But what is the best way to handle it?
And so the positive discrimination instruction is passed on to us. After all, we’re scouring the market for the rising stars our clients need. Even though this is something I have encountered a number of times in Exec Search, it always feels disconcerting when a client says it. They usually make a bit of a joke of it (“I know we can’t say this, but....”), but you know that what they’re actually doing is giving you a valuable insight into what candidate they want and who will be successful in their selection process. ‘We’d like a female from an ethnic minority background because all the rest of the team are white British men, and it looks bad’ means that it will be incredibly difficult if you find someone ideal who happens to be a white British man for them to get the job, even if in all other ways they’re the closest match. ‘We’d like a woman because all the other Directors are men’ is another one. I haven’t yet been asked to find someone based on their sexual preference or political leanings, hair colour, or how many arms and legs they’ve got, but I’m sure that some discerning client somewhere has given their Exec Recruitment Partner that very specific instruction at some time.
What do we think about this?
These are reputable, blue chip companies. They’re often hugely well-known, global businesses. And (of course) these are serious issues that are definitely not best handled in a slightly offhand blog such as this. But is this is a bit of a silent scandal? I know that Recruitment is filled with a lot of cowboys. I’ve encountered them myself, with their amusing misappropriation of corporate speak and sometimes cavalier attitude to professionalism. And Recruitment does have a really bad reputation because of a few rotten apples. One of the most important (and fascinating) aspects of our role is to be the mediator, right in the middle of things, delivering insight, and it strikes me that this sort of issue is a pretty contentious one that we have to handle carefully. It’s the job of a decent recruiter to walk that tightrope, keeping focused on delivering the best result but at the same time staying true to one’s moral compass (presuming we have one). It’s about balancing who is best for the job with the need for our clients to be seen as equal opportunities employers. But if we’re closing the door on the best qualified candidate in favour of someone who is less suitable but under-represented in the team, are we really doing the right thing?