Two businesswomen using a laptop and discussing paperwork while working together at a desk in their home office
Changing world: the rise of hybrid working is having a positive effect on staff diversity © Giselle Flissak/Getty Images

The diversity of candidates presented to clients is, according to recruitment agencies, increasingly critical to their credibility — and their ability to continue winning work. 

“It’s an absolute given that you will be searching high and low to provide as diverse a slate [of candidates] as you possibly can,” says Shami Iqbal, UK managing partner at executive search company Spencer Stuart. “You have to turn up with a diverse team of your own, as well.”

The pressure to improve diversity comes, in some cases, from clients’ own customers, who are “pushing it down the supply chain” and requiring diversity as part of their suppliers’ “licence to operate”, says Yvonne Smyth, a director and head of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at recruitment company Hays.

Shareholders and employees are also demanding diverse hiring, says Smyth. “They’re going to vote with their feet if they don’t feel there’s an authentic commitment,” she warns.

Criteria used to measure diversity in recruitment have broadened, too. The Parker review, which sets targets for improving ethnic diversity in UK boardrooms, expanded its focus earlier this year, for example. FTSE 350 companies already had targets for the diversity of their boards but have now been asked to set goals for the percentage of senior management positions held by ethnic minority executives. The targets have also been widened to capture 50 of the UK’s largest privately held companies.

Smyth says recruiters are taking additional steps to improve diverse candidates’ chances of being hired, including the removal of names and “clearly identifying factors” from CVs. Using digital tools to screen job advertisements for bias in phrasing and vocabulary, which could deter female candidates or people from minority backgrounds, has become common practice, as well, she says.

Recruiters say they are putting greater emphasis on finding candidates with potential, rather than those with a specific number of years’ experience or who are already the finished article.

Other changes being made by employers are having a positive effect on workforce diversity, notes Smyth. “Offering flexibility, whether that’s hybrid working or truly part-time working — that is a real game changer and was not a feature at all [before the pandemic],” she points out.

Experience in directly comparable roles is still attractive, however, particularly when companies are trading in the face of adversity.

Research by Spencer Stuart, published in October, found that the proportion of first-time, female and minority ethnic candidates appointed as non-executive directors by the UK’s largest listed companies dropped sharply last year. The headhunter concluded that boards had prioritised candidates with experience of running publicly listed companies as they faced destabilising events, such as the Russia-Ukraine war and high inflation.

But the drive for diversity has created opportunities for recruiters beyond simply placing candidates. Many now offer services to help clients assess their culture, onboard senior hires, coach executives, or support people promoted internally to step up to their new roles.

“All of these things that we help with, we almost don’t think about them as being DEI things, but they are,” says Iqbal. “They’re about inclusion and about equity.”

Some organisations are also spending resources on ensuring diversity in their internal pipeline of talent, according to several recruiters.

By hiring homegrown talent, “you’re less likely to have ‘organ rejection’”, says Kate Grussing, founder of Sapphire Partners, a diversity-focused executive search company, which has worked to fill roles at the Bank of England, HM Treasury, and London Stock Exchange Group. 

She adds that hiring internally can also be cheaper. “You’re not paying money out to a search firm . . . and you also have a better idea of what you’re getting,” she says.

While much of the focus on broadening recruitment in the UK has been on gender and ethnic diversity, which are comparatively easy to measure, some recruiters say the conversation is expanding to consider how to find talented employees and leaders from a wider range of backgrounds.

“I would argue the debate is broadening out more, from what I would have called pictorial diversity into true diversity,” says Mark Freebairn, head of the board practice at headhunter Odgers Berndtson. “I could create a board that would photograph as the most diverse board you’ve ever seen but, if every single one of them went to the same college in Oxford, is that really true diversity?”

Iqbal adds: “We’re seeing much more now around socio-economic status, neurodiversity, physical ability — just diversity in its broadest sense.” 

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