I’ve been watching The Voice recently, the UK “reality talent” show (not quite sure how much of that to put in inverted commas) where the judges have no idea what each singer looks like beyond a reasonably confident (though not always accurate) guess at his/her gender. At the point of casting their vote, the judges cannot tell the singers’ race, age, sexual orientation, marital status, whether they are or planning to get pregnant, whether they are disabled, what religion or belief they may have, whether they are contemplating gender reassignment, and so on. That’s at least eight of the nine protected characteristics in the Equality Act fully covered.
They have to focus instead on the core competence required, singing. The opportunities for stereotyping are notionally reduced to almost nil. That the judges find this difficult is put beyond argument when they turn their chair and see a grungy youth lulling a country and western ballad, a white man singing the blues, or what appears to be Harriett Harman banging out a heavy metal number. You see many examples of the sort of conflicted face managers sometimes pull when told of a team member’s pregnancy – “I know I have to look pleased but ….”. Style of dress, tattoos, piercings, etc. – all the overt physical signs that may cause a person to make assumptions about the other person – are negated because the Voice judges cannot see the performer and can only focus on the quality of the singing. This makes for reasonable television, but is it really anything more than a stunt? Could that stripping away of familiar touch-stones for our views of other people be a non-discriminatory but still effect recruitment tool, for example? Or are we too attached to the person’s overall self-projection, appearance, personality, etc., to take things that far?
One international law firm has recently implemented a procedure of ‘blind CVs’ that contain only key information about the candidates and excludes information that may create a bias, particularly the University they attended. The firm (like many of its peers) has tended to favour Oxbridge students, but as a senior member of the firm said: “We’re looking for gems and they’re not always in the jeweller’s shop.” True, but would the Devil’s Advocate not say that the jeweller’s was still by far the most efficient place to look, and that while one might in theory find the next Koh-i-Noor while panning in the Thames, the odds against it are surely such that the time spent would not be worth it? And that the trouble with rough diamonds is that statistically a lot of them turn out to be pebbles?
To achieve sustainable growth organisations need to be innovative and have a diverse workforce. Diversity feeds innovation and it increases an organisation’s ability to build closer and more intimate relationships with customers and clients because employees can empathise with and relate to a wider range of people. In principle, all totally unarguable. In reality, if you are looking for someone to join your particular “boy-band” (whatever your team actually does) then there is more to a successful hire than the voice or whatever the relevant technical competence actually is. Your candidate may have a fabulous voice but if he is 75 and the others still can’t get dressed unaided, it’s never going to work. “Blind” recruiting is therefore lovely in theory but you cannot make a business team, any more than future musical stars, out of social, political, and/or presentational mis-fits united only by a single technical skill – it ignores the importance of “fit” and while no-one should allow that to be a cover for discrimination, it is also madness to ignore it.