How organisations can make their recruitment process more inclusive

Elizabeth Okoh

11 May 2022

My first foray into the job seekers market was more than a decade ago. I was 17 years old at the time and had almost a year to burn before starting my A Levels.

Those were the days when ‘hitting the pavement’ to look for vacancies was the best strategy for serious job seekers, as applying online was still in its infancy. However, I remember being apprehensive – to the point of nervousness – to go into retail stores and hand in my CV. I had heard stories of rogue employees binning applications before it ever got to management, so I’d often insist on handing my CV directly to the manager. But this did little to abate that feeling of being judged by my appearance.

Fast forward to our current digital-first age where sending a postal CV is archaic, being judged (by my background) is still a worry. And this is compounded by the possibility that employers will search for me on Google or social media.

This undoubtedly presents an unfair advantage and tips the scale negatively for people like myself from marginalised communities – a landmark study found that people with white sounding names are 74% more likely to receive a positive response than applications from people with an ethnic minority name; and decades later, people with “Black sounding names” are still less likely to get job interviews despite a boom in unconscious bias training and diversity initiatives, according to Bloomberg.

So, when I began my application process at Harvard and was informed by the recruitment company – Hidden – that it was a blind process to eradicate unconscious bias, right from the start I knew Harvard prioritised fairness in its process and was working on its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) objectives.

Indeed, it was comforting to know that, from the outset, I was being compared to other applicants by my skills and merit alone – not by my ethnicity, gender, or class identification.

A First

My fascination with Harvard’s recruitment process didn’t stop at that initial recognition though. It was brilliant to see that there was an equal gender split during my three rounds of interviews (yes, that was quite a challenge!) where I got to learn that I wasn’t only being interviewed by senior members of the team, but also by the colleagues I’d be working with.

In all my years of applying for jobs, it was the first time I was witnessing a company put its trust in employees from all levels, to choose the best applicant to join their team. Because for all the hoorah of businesses hammering on about ‘company culture’, Harvard was actively doing this and ensuring that whoever was chosen to fill the role was a person that current members of staff would be happy to work with – talk about employee experience!

So, for this blog, I decided to not only give my personal account but dive deeper to understand why Harvard has taken the path that’s still less trodden in the business of recruitment.

Who is Hidden?

Speaking to Kim Joseph, Communities & Partnerships Lead at Hidden, that shepherded my application, I learned that Hidden is a recruitment company set to create a better, more diverse working world for everyone. They combine the best of humans and technology to build more diverse and effective workforces for organisations who want to make sustainable change and a difference – not only for today’s society but the future.

The business was founded in 2018 by Richard Bloom and Ross Taylor who saw the gap in the industry, as well as the incredible need for effective council around diversity in the workplace. Hidden was created to address the need for consultation, especially regarding talent acquisition and reimagining recruitment.

The organisation’s mission is to create diverse talent and inclusive culture strategies for the creative economy that consists of Creative, Tech, Advertising and Web3 industries.

A partnership steeped in DEI

The advocacy for hiring diverse talent is nothing new, but the events of the past few years have brought its urgency to the fore. At Harvard, we are determined to play our part in walking the walk to bring about change that goes beyond a tick box exercise.

Understanding how new talent is recruited (based on skills, not background or what they look like) is key. We sought to find a suitable partner with DEI at its core and it quickly became clear that Hidden would be the perfect fit. So, in September 2020, our partnership began.

They’ve helped to improve our hiring process by introducing their technology (an app) that reduces bias by removing names, ages, education, ethnicities and genders from the screening stages of the hiring process.

This means that candidates will only ever be considered based on their professional experience and are therefore viewed on the same criteria. This allows candidates to have a clear sense of how their experience is presented and we’re able to create a fair and equitable process as a result.

Also, we deliver a brilliant candidate experience throughout the process by allowing candidates to see all corners of the business via diverse interview panels – of which I can attest to.

But apart from my experience, the ongoing feedback from other candidates has been phenomenal and representation within Harvard is cited as being an integral part of why candidates accepted a role.

Partnering with the Taylor Bennet Foundation

At the time of writing this piece, it’s my tenth month at Harvard and while I feel settled, there’s still a lot to learn about the goings-on of the company. In my quest to gather information for this blog, I was pleased to learn about Harvard’s partnership with the Taylor Bennet Foundation (TBF), a charity established to encourage people from Black, Asian and ethnic minority background to pursue a career in communications.

The partnership includes a learning programme where three of Harvard’s Directors mentor young people on the scheme, speak at events, host PR trainees at the Harvard office for panel sessions and hire from their talent pool – the first hired talent being the brilliant Shanil who won Young Professional of the Year at the PRmoment Awards 2022.

But beyond mentorship and recruitment, the relationship has been a great learning ground for Harvard too. In the words of Lorna, one of our board directors: “Our relationship with TBF has helped us become more wide-thinking, more actively and consciously hungry for diverse talent and just a better business overall. And it’s definitely found us some brilliant people too!”

A two-pronged approach

My findings have been enlightening so far, and you might think that hiring a ton of people from diverse backgrounds is the way to go, but you’d be only half right because only focusing on hiring marginalised people is akin to a tick box exercise in today’s landscape.

You must also focus on making changes that nurture a welcoming environment that influences them to stay. Because for companies that do this for face value, their retention rates will show the true picture. Hence, businesses truly wanting a diverse workforce must ensure their company culture provides a great employee experience which supports all talent.

Not to keep banging on about the good strides Harvard has been making, but in my short time here, there’s a lot I can attest to that makes me happy to be here. From having a Personal Development Plan (PDP) right from the beginning to mental health workshops, virtual cooking classes, immersive team outings or Deliveroo Fridays, the list goes on!

But most importantly where it concerns DEI, we’ve established a DEI committee and six pillar teams (Disability, Neurodiversity, LGBTQ+, Gender, Socio-economic, and Race and Ethnicity) to help shape and create an environment where anyone, from any background feels safe, inspired and enabled to thrive.

In addition to this, we’ve had companywide educational programmes including: a year-long Race At Work Awareness training workshops delivered by BAME To Boardroom, a compulsory book club covering a variety of books on race; and there will be other initiatives kicking off from the other pillars in the months to come.

Why it matters

You would think it’s a no brainer that having a diverse group of people in a company can only enhance the quality of its talent pool, but this thinking is not the standard. People from minority groups are still overlooked for positions they’re qualified for, and this must change.

It can be easy to focus on the innovation of products and services, but today’s employees want more from their workplace and organisations who are uninterested or unwilling to have DEI at its core will soon find themselves left behind.

However, making transformational change isn’t an overnight fix, and that’s why experts are there to help lead the way. To this effect, I asked Kim Joseph: How can other organisations be more inclusive when hiring new talent, and she said:

“You need to be passionate and want to be part of changing the landscape. Everyone from the top-down of an organisation and the bottom-up needs to embrace diversity and inclusion. Businesses must be willing to have challenging conversations, make themselves uncomfortable and ultimately understand why they want to make that change for the better. With the right mindset and goals, it’s hugely achievable and a fantastic feeling when you see the change happening right before your eyes.”

“Don’t do what you’ve always done. Try new ways of working or find simple tweaks like data backed decision making for your interviews; score cards, set processes and know what good looks like before you start meeting people!”

And I couldn’t agree more.