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Tackling discrimination and unconscious bias in the workplace

Leading accountancy firm PwC recently took the bold and many would say very brave step to publicly publish a report highlighting differences in wages for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employees within their organisation. As one of the first companies globally to voluntarily publish data on the BAME pay gap it is most definitely a courageous step. It could be considered even more so when you consider that the findings revealed that at PwC the difference in wages for BAME employees is 12.8 per cent and for bonuses the gap is 35.4 per cent.

The aim of the report is to improve diversity within PwC. The company stressed that BAME and non-BAME employees were being paid the same for equivalent jobs and that the discrepancy was due to there being more non-BAME staff in higher paid senior roles and more BAME staff working in junior administrative roles. The data however certainly highlights the ongoing issue of discrimination within the UK workforce. PwC’s findings follow growing criticism of the lack of ethnic diversity in British boardrooms, after a government-commissioned report published last year found more than half of the companies included in the FTSE 100 index had all-white boards. The report reveals that out of 1,087 director positions in the FTSE 100, only 8% of positions are held by directors of colour, of which 1.5% are UK citizens, despite the fact that 14% of the total UK population is from a non-white ethnic group (up from 2% in 1971).

So how can you tackle discrimination and unconscious basis to move towards a truly diverse and inclusive UK workforce?

The most important step towards solving a problem comes in first admitting you have one. Currently there are no government regulations that require companies to publish data on BAME pay. This ultimately would be the first major step in tackling the issue. As PwC Chairman Kevin Ellis commented "The more transparent we are with our diversity and social mobility data, the more we hold ourselves accountable to achieving real change." After legislation the onus has to be placed on individual companies to develop recruitment selection policies that tackle discrimination and unconscious basis head-on.

Some of Britain’s biggest employers have already made positive steps. The civil service, Teach First, the BBC, the NHS, learn direct, local government and the Conservative political party implemented name-blind recruitment in 2015, together with private sector companies HSBC, Deloitte, Virgin Money and KPMG. Government research has found that names certainly do make a difference as UK employers were far more likely to offer interviews to people with white-sounding names as appose to than non-white sounding ones, even though their applications were otherwise identical. 

One of the organisations signing up to the pledge, Deloitte, also vowed to introduce name-blind school and university interviews to curb discrimination based on which institution or background an applicant comes from. David Sproul, senior partner and chief executive of Deloitte said“The introduction of name-blind recruitment processes and school and university-blind interviews will help prevent unconscious bias and ensure that job offers are made on the basis of potential - not ethnicity, gender or past personal circumstance.” 

The good news is that the steps taken are already making a real impact. The decision in 2015 by EY (formerly Ernst & Young) to remove all academic and education details and ban CVs from its trainee application process has proven successful in diversifying the company’s workforce. The global professional services firm, one of Britain’s biggest graduate recruiters, also announced at the time that it would be scrapping the need for applicants to have a minimum 2:1 degree pass at undergraduate level or a UCAS point score of 300, which is equivalent to three B grades at A-level. It said that the move was designed to create opportunities for talented individuals “regardless of their background”.

After the policies were introduced last year, the number of recruits from state schools jumped by 10 percentage points to 49 per cent for graduates and to 59 per cent for school leavers, according to statistics published in February. The company, one of the world’s four biggest accountancy firms, revealed that 18 per cent of its 2016 UK graduate and school leaver intake would have been ineligible to apply before the policy was introduced.

Whilst all these steps are making a real difference, what is apparent is the need for all these approaches to be supported by continuing to address the bias itself and its roots, so that people actually make the right decision in the first place.