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Diversity – Are Employers Taking it Seriously?

Advice, Diversity September 16, 2007

Diversity - Are Employers Taking it Seriously?

Diversity – Are Employers Taking it Seriously?

Diversity – is it just a buzz word or are employers taking it seriously? Kate Hilpern investigates

Good news: employers are waking up to the fact that it is not only ethnic-minority graduates who can face additional challenges in the job market. "Those that are older, gay or female, to name a few, can suffer from their very own set of hurdles," says Terry Jones of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS). With many sectors suffering from skills shortages, it’s little wonder that employers are keen not to miss out on the talent that exists in these groups and are making moves to attract them.

"Take graduates from the white working class," says Terry. "They are often the first generation in their families to go into higher education and many don’t know what an investment bank or a management consultancy does. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have lots to offer these organisations. That’s why so many employers are being pro-active in trying to attract them, not assuming it has to be the other way round."

But now for the bad news: there are some graduate recruiters who still see diversity as a box-ticking exercise, some recruiters admit. "They say they welcome ethnic minorities or gay people, but actually they’re still looking for people who are like them – the ones who wear posh suits and speak like them," says one career adviser.

Others simply get it wrong, says Dianah Worman, adviser on diversity for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. "An example might be an employer who tries to fix things simply by numbers, for instance by employing more women. If that employer doesn’t look at changing the culture then they’ll have a problem. Anyone who is different will stick out like a sore thumb and spend most of their time remodelling their behaviour to try to fit in. Alternatively, they’ll just leave. Either way, the employer and the employees lose out."

So where does that leave graduates from minority backgrounds when they are job hunting? Patrick Johnson, head of diversity at Manchester University Careers Service, advises graduates to really do their homework. "Look out for the employers that say they care about diversity, check they belong to the relevant forums like the Employers Forum on Age. Try to get work experience, talk to the employees, and ask searching questions at interview stage," he says. And for those who really want to get ahead, read on for the Advantage guide to the job market!

DISABILITY
The position facing disabled graduates is not as bleak as is often assumed. An AGCAS survey of graduates called What Happens Next? found that while employment rates for disabled graduates are lower than for non-disabled graduates six months after graduation, the difference is minimal. Susan Scott-Parker, chief executive of the Employers Forum on Disability, explains, "In the past, there has been a perception that recruiting people with disabilities is costly, timely and involves taking on a problem rather than an asset. Increasingly, however, the employment of people with disabilities is recognised as good business sense." A growing number of employers, for instance, have reported that disabled staff often shine when it comes to thinking ‘outside the box’. "After all, they have to consistently come up with innovative solutions to enable them to manage their own lives," says Susan. "If you’re a wheelchair user who has to use the British railway system, you’ll be one hell of a problem solver!"

But whether you disclose your disability at interview stage is up to you. It might help to show your disability in a positive light, explain aspects of your CV, or to ensure that you have appropriate support in place for interviews and future employment. Some people choose not to disclose on application because they are concerned about discrimination or don’t feel that their disability is relevant to the job. You make the decision and can choose to disclose later in the selection process. You should bear in mind, however, that a job offer is contractual and you must tell the truth if a direct question is asked; there may also be medical or health and safety requirements to disclose in certain occupations.

RELIGION
Some graduates have genuine concerns about being discriminated against for their beliefs. Among their greatest priorities are being allowed time for prayer, accessing special food such as halal meat and being able to keep up religion-appropriate appearances – for example, hijabs, beards or crosses. Should you mention these issues at the interview or will you get penalised?

Aron Joy is Jewish and a lawyer at firm Simmons & Simmons. He says the thing he was most worried about was having to leave work early on Fridays for the Jewish Sabbath and, to a lesser extent, festivals. "There was one coming up just a few weeks after I joined. I didn’t want to look uncommitted. But my employers have been brilliant and have even offered to provide kosher food for the regular lunch meetings," he says.

It isn’t always plain sailing however and you might want to target positive employers. Members of the recently formed Employers Forum on Belief include: BT, the Land Registry, Accenture, Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, B&Q, the
Co-operative Group, BBC, Race For Opportunity (RFO), Shell and London Underground.

ETHNIC MINORITIES
Rob Whiteman, executive director for resources at Lewisham Borough Council, says it has had a specific focus on recruiting graduates from ethnic minorities. Similar efforts being made by many of today’s graduate employers, such as working exclusively with recruitment agencies that agree to produce diversity shortlists, says Sandra Kerr, director of Race for Opportunity. She adds, "Some employers are also targeting specific universities with high proportions of ethnic minorities."

Denise Blake, who organises the University of Manchester’s ethnic diversity fair, comments: "The fairs enable organisations to be seen as an employer of choice to ethnic-minority graduates. For graduates, there is the opportunity to really quiz organisations about their diversity policies, too."

Diversity initiatives such as Lewisham’s also help. Find out who is trying to promote opportunities to black and minority ethnic applicants. But don’t limit yourself to them and challenge stereotyping. You may, for instance, have interests or achievements you can mention that challenge cultural stereotypes.

Tackle personal issues early too. For example, if you would not shake hands with a person of the opposite sex, rehearse how you will explain this when offered a handshake at interview.

And check out Impact, a collaborative project across the careers services of six universities in Yorkshire aimed at helping BME students into work.
www.bradford.ac.uk/admin/impact/employers.php

SEXUAL ORIENTATION
"It’s easier than ever to be out at university and we’re finding that graduates don’t want to go back into the closet at work," says Stephen Frost, programme manager for the diversity champions programme at Stonewall, the gay lobby group. This is good news all round, he says. "Research shows that people who feel able to be themselves at work are likely to be more productive, get promoted and earn more. So our advice is that if you want to be out, be out."

When seeking employment, he suggests that graduates refer to Stonewall’s ‘corporate equality index’ – a list of the top 100 gay-friendly employers in the UK. The index ranks employers of all sizes, according to criteria ranging from whether they promote anti-discrimination policies to whether they have gay staff in their boardrooms.

The top 100 employers include 12 FTSE 100 companies and 11 government departments, and is dominated by blue-chip banks and local authorities. "Media, health and education are seen as the most stereotypically gay-friendly sectors, but when you look down the list, banks and police forces, as well as manufacturing firms, are more prevalent," says Stephen.
The introduction of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 means that it is unlawful to discriminate against employees on the grounds of sexual orientation. You can benchmark and compare employers using the Corporate Equality Index at www.stonewall.org.uk/cei. And think about it from the employers’ perspective. Most people in Britain are not homophobic, but still find it hard to discuss sexuality.

MATURE STUDENTS
Older graduates can get a raw deal, particularly when it comes to the traditional graduate recruitment schemes, admits Sam Mercer, director of the Employers Forum on Age (EFA). "They don’t fit the pattern of how employers have historically viewed graduates. An additional problem is that many recruiters actually want very little experience, so they can mould graduates into their working culture." She adds that these schemes can involve a lot of geographical moves, which don’t always suit mature graduates, especially those with family commitments.

Nevertheless, she says, the future is looking brighter. "Graduate recruiters are very aware of the legislation against age discrimination. Many have already started looking at their programmes to make sure they don’t discriminate."

The EFA’s advice to mature graduates is not to apologise for your age. "Some people have been made to feel they have to explain away why they are older, but they should be using the advantages – notably in the form of life and work experiences – in selling themselves," says Sam.

Take a long, hard look at your past and present. What have you been involved with (in any setting – work, education, family, social)? What skills did you develop as a result? There will be many like time-management, problem solving, communication. Develop a CV that is concise and targeted. Try a skills focus rather than a chronological focus.

And remind them that mature graduates are far more likely, statistically, to stay with an employer for longer, turn up for work more regularly and be more loyal, says Margaret Holbrough joint-chair, AGCAS older graduates committee (www.agcas.org.uk).

WOMEN IN ‘MALE’ INDUSTRY
Close your eyes and think construction. What do you see – a bunch of burly men in hard hats? Little wonder that women account for just nine per cent of the construction workforce. Ingrid Heseltine is one of the small, but growing, number of women to have bucked the trend. Successfully developing and financing major construction projects including marinas and town centres, she not only dismisses the idea that women aren’t welcome in construction, but she also denies the existence of a glass ceiling. "Women can progress to the top jobs," she insists. Her company De Facto is run almost entirely by women. The problem lies in attracting women into the industry in the first place, she says.

Employers really want women – they just can’t find them, confirms Di Barber, equality and diversity adviser for CITB-ConstructionSkills, the sector skills council. "There’s a skills crisis in the construction industry, so the last thing employers are doing is turning good graduates away." In fact, women engineers are getting paid more than male counterparts and are reaching senior positions earlier, according to EMTA, the national training organisation for engineering and manufacture.

Some 75 per cent of the 290,000 UK women of working age, with degrees in SET, fail to take up careers in these industries, despite work-related experience. Professor Polina Bayvel, vice dean of research in the faculty of engineering sciences at University College, London, says: "It does require a certain amount of guts and character; not every girl will be happy in an all-male environment."

To find role models, says the UK Resource Centre for Women; strategy for women in science, engineering and technology, have a look at www.wisecampaign.org.uk or www.setwomenresource.org.uk

INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS
With our ever-shrinking global community, more people than ever are looking to work outside their country of origin. It’s an exciting time for international students wanting to work in the UK post-graduation right now. The UK government operates various schemes for international students interested in working in the country after completing their studies. To manage the expected increase of foreign students seeking employment in the UK post-graduation, new initiatives are being introduced to support and provide advice on what schemes are available and their requirements.

Philippe Rose, brand and communications advisor at Shell, advises students firstly to check if they can work in the UK. "If you are a citizen of a European Economic Area country, Swiss, from Gibraltar or a Commonwealth citizen with permission to stay in the UK, you are legally allowed to work in the UK without any restrictions. If not, you are able work in the UK if you are granted permission through a recognised scheme," he says.

Philippe adds that a work permit allows you to work in a particular position for a particular employer. "Work permits are only granted if a genuine vacancy exists and there is skills shortage in that sector. The work permit application is the responsibility of the employer; therefore it is worth checking which employers are interested in employing international graduates."

There are also schemes available, such as the Fresh Talent: Working in Scotland Scheme, which is applicable to overseas graduates of Scottish universities. It allows international graduates with the intention of living and working in Scotland a visa extension of two years.

For more information on work permits see the Home Office website: www.workingintheuk.gov.uk

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