7 Steps for EDI Recruitment in Practice

By Helen Castle
07 Sep 2020

The following article was originally published on the RIBA website. A huge thanks to Helen Castle, Publishing Director at RIBA and to April Harrington for your contribution.


For many businesses, developing a workplace that is diverse in its makeup and inclusive in its culture is now a priority. To remain relevant, organisations are recognising that the best way of serving their clients is to be representative of wider society – whether it is seeking a more equal gender split of staff at all levels or talent from a wider variety of social, economic and ethnic backgrounds. Diversity makes economical as well as ethical sense. It is proven by research, such as that undertaken by McKinsey (2018), to provide creative and commercial competitive advantage.

But how and where to start? Revision of recruitment processes is now widely recognised to be essential to developing a more equal workplace. Close the Gap’, RIBA’s guidance for Chartered Practices on addressing the Gender Pay Gap, outlines how recruitment, alongside progression and retention, can effectively unlock the disparity between genders in terms of opportunities, compensation and seniority. To attract and retain staff, recruitment needs to be developed as part of a wider plan for creating working conditions in which everybody can thrive and contribute, establishing a sense of belonging for all.

For April Harrington, Employment Consultant at Croner, transforming recruitment is two-fold. It is a matter of recognising first the influence that our own behaviours and attitudes play in selecting candidates and then setting up robust and fair recruitment systems that ensure everyone is measured against the same standards, reducing the chances of discrimination.

The seven steps

Step 1: Recognising Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is one of the most significant barriers to seeking candidates from diverse backgrounds and providing a level playing field for all applicants. It often drives practice directors to recruit informally from the comfort of their own professional and educational networks, whether it is an ex-colleague from a practice they have previously worked at or a school where they have taught. It often manifests itself in the mindset that a candidate must be the ‘right fit’ for an existing team, which results in like-for-like recruitment. This overlooks the opportunity of introducing someone who might come from a different social or ethnic background, providing an alternative or fresh perspective.

ACAS defines unconscious bias as occurring ‘when people favour others who look like them and/or share their values. For example, a person may be drawn to someone with a similar educational background, from the same area, or who is the same colour or ethnicity as them.’

Harrington strongly recommends that staff with recruitment responsibilities should all undertake training in unconscious bias, so that they fully appreciate the role it plays in identifying with one individual over another, avoiding any preferential treatment in the selection process.

Step 2: Drafting the Job Description and Person Specification

When writing the job description, which provides the overview of a role’s duties, responsibilities and functions, Harrington highlights the need ‘when replacing someone to take a step back from the existing staff member and depersonalise the process. It is all too easy to characterise the position in terms of a particular individual’s age, education and qualifications.’

The focus should be on being ‘as factual as possible about requirements, steering away from the subjective’. The job description should be based on: ‘the tasks and activities that the role is required to undertake daily, weekly, monthly and annually. It sets the expectations for the candidate to select and deselect themselves solely based on those facts.’

What is required strictly in terms of hours and location? Is it necessary for the role to be office based and 9 to 5? If hours can be flexible and there is scope to work from home, the job will be open to a much larger pool of applicants. Those, for instance, with caring responsibilities, whether as a single parent or with elderly relatives.

The use of language needs to be as neutral as possible. Harrington warns against the inclusion of terms such as ‘highly pressurised work environment’, for instance, that can unintentionally conjure up images of an alpha male, Wall Street-like setting. Job titles, such as ‘cleaning maid’ or ‘foreman’, overtly attach themselves to a particular gender.

The same principles are at stake when writing the job specification, which should focus on the qualifications, personality traits and skills that are essential for an individual to perform the job. Measuring experience in units of time can result in age discrimination, for example, if a decade’s experience is stipulated. Instead be specific about the areas in which experience are required.

It is useful for another pair of eyes to review both the job description and person specification to ensure no specific group of people are put off applying for the role.

There is no legal obligation to write a job description or person specification, but these documents provide the essential touchstones of recruitment. They are the starting point for the job advertisement and the selection criteria. They are the information that can be used to measure all applicants against in the shortlisting process and as part of a competency-based interview.

Step 3: How, and if, to take Positive Action?

Positive action can be used legally to encourage more diversity at the application stage, if the appropriate groundwork is undertaken first to collect the relevant data and analyse it correctly. Monitoring must be used to demonstrate that there is a lower representation of staff from a particular characteristic, background or community at a particular level or in a specific team or area.

Data is necessary to support a positive action statement in a job advertisement, such as: ‘We particularly encourage applications from [protected characteristic(s)], who are currently under-represented at these levels/within these areas.’

Positive action does not remove competition for jobs: appointments must be made on the merit of the application and performance in the selection process. Harrington explains: ‘It is only if you have two candidates and they come out as tie-breakers that you can select the member from the underrepresented group. This is where sound monitoring of data comes in, as it requires evidence to support that a particular group is underrepresented.’

Step 4: Advertising the Role

Where you advertise a role is of particular significance. It provides the means for reaching the widest pool possible. If a practice or its director only advertises via their own social media channels, for instance, they are not going to go beyond their existing network. Likewise, it is important to be mindful of advertising with online or print publications that have gendered readerships.

RIBA Jobs, RIBA’s job board has neutral and professional branding, and has extensive distribution. Its data feeds out to national aggregators, such as Broadbean and Indeed. Online searches for a role are enabled by a straightforward search for the term ‘architect’ via Google for Jobs. The board is further supported by postings on RIBA Jobs’ Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts.

In the long term, as highlighted by Harrington, it is essential to monitor where you are advertising positions, assessing impact, range and quality of candidates in order to ensure you are disseminating the job advert as widely as possible and broadening horizons.

Step 5: Shortlisting for Interview

Once a role is advertised, asking all applicants to complete an application form helps to give everybody an equal chance of success by posing the same questions to everyone in a standardised format.

To minimise partiality, the front page of the application form can be removed. As Harrington points out: ‘individuals with less common names, who were educated at universities outside the UK often get less call-backs’. Unconscious bias all too easily creeps in favouring individuals with familiar names who’ve attended established institutions from a known region or city.

For the shortlisting process, the sole focus of the recruiter should be on the skill set of the applicants. Ideally, this should take place with a diverse recruitment team of male and female staff from a variety of ethnic backgrounds to ensure a balanced approach.

Step 6: Assessment of Candidates

Interviews should be competency based (also referred to as structured or behavioural interviews) as they are more systematic, with each question targeting a specific skill or competency. Candidates should be asked questions relating to their behaviour in specific circumstances, which they then need to back up with concrete examples. The questions thus should be based on the criteria and skillset defined for the role in the job description and person specification.

The same fixed script should be used for all candidates. The interview panel, which should be as diverse as the team shortlisting applicants, needs to stick to the script assiduously, avoiding tangential chit-chat, and fastidiously use an agreed scoring method. To retain consistency across scripts, a point needs to be awarded for each question with clear measures agreed by the panel ahead of the interview. So that only the individual with the highest scores is offered the job.

The last minute inclusion of informal seemingly innocuous questions, such as where a candidate lives, how they travelled to the interview and establishing if they attended the same university as the interviewer, all provide opportunities to establish an affinity with one candidate over the other, which has no bearing on an individual’s ability to undertake a role. This type of affinity or social connection that a candidate and interviewer can develop in a matter of a few minutes can prejudice a fair interview process, putting one individual at an unfair advantage over another regardless of ability.

Interview selection can be effectively supported by anonymous assessment, such as writing a report or psychometric testing. For design roles, practices should ensure portfolios are submitted undisclosed to separate the work from the perceived persona of the candidate.

Step 7: The Appointment

Once the recruiters have selected the successful candidate based on their interview scores and assessment results, reference and right to work checks need to be applied indiscriminately, even if a person is recommended or known to an office. The salary offer also needs to be consistent regardless of the individual. Its inclusion in the original job advertisement will help to ensure that it is applied without discrimination.

Getting Going on EDI Recruitment

The rigour and commitment required of EDI recruitment processes can all too often prove a stumbling-block for small practices without dedicated HR support. Certainly, positive action should not be considered without referring to an HR expert and the consistent collection of data being in place. Small practice leaders, though, should not hold back from opening up a conversation about diversity with their team and establishing basic principles and formal processes for recruitment, such as writing job descriptions and person specifications, advertising all roles and using a consistent script for competency-based interviews. Once the essential starting blocks for widening the field of potential applicants are in place, the benefits of developing a more representative and relevant design team should become apparent.

Special thanks to Helen Castle for contributing this article, forPublishing Director more information on RIBA's services. 

For more information on partnerships with Croner, email partnershipmarketing@croner.co.uk.

About the Author

Croner Employee Helen Castle

Helen Castle is Publishing Director at RIBA, where she oversees The RIBA Journal, RIBA Publishing, books’ retail and RIBA Jobs. For 18 years, she was the Editor of Architectural Design (AD) at Wiley, where she was also the Executive Editor of the global architecture publishing programme. She has a BA in History of Art and Architecture from the University of East Anglia and an MSc in the History of Architecture from the Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL). She regularly publishes articles and speaks at schools of architecture.

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