Following on from a series of seminars we delivered in June about how to manage recruitment effectively, I read an interesting piece by Gillian Tett in the FT last week – “A pride 2that still dare not speak its name in business” (FT, Comments & Analysis, 20 June 2014).  Tett highlights how executives still feel the need to keep their sexuality to themselves but this is both good thing and bad at the same time.  It is not my business and therefore I can have no legitimate reason for asking you about it, but equally it is not my business and so I would rather you did not tell me about it.   

On that basis the US Military’s historical approach to sexuality (“Don’t ask, don’t tell”) would seem to have much to recommend it.  Of course, that’s a naïve and idealistic view on my part, because, as we know, people find out about other people, whether they are high profile business people or lower profile colleagues with whom we work, and unfortunately are prone to jumping to conclusions, even making judgements about them, which conclusions can be both damaging and wrong.  “Don’t ask, don’t tell” can be sidestepped pretty quickly by gossip, assumption and prejudice.  Whether any of those are factually well-founded is often a very much subsidiary consideration, and that is true whether we are talking about sexuality, religion, disability or any other protected characteristic which may not be instantly apparent.   

Let’s be clear about this: diversity and inclusion in business is not about compliance or some ‘soft’ HR aspiration, it is about business performance and innovation.  During our seminars the topic of unconscious bias cropped up.  There is clearly a desire on the one hand to comply with the law and not discriminate against candidates during recruitment, while on the other there was a growing concern about unconscious bias, something we all share as human beings, and how to mitigate its potential to contaminate the recruitment process.  This is where HR professionals can make things happen, by making sure the process for finding, attracting, recruiting and managing people is the best it possibly can be.   

Finding the best people and applying an effective meritocracy is the aspiration, not just of HR professionals but business people in general, because that’s what gets results.  As Anthony Hilton pointed out in his ‘City Comment’ – “… when a venture capitalist backs an entrepreneur, it also understands the people the entrepreneur will need to make the business successful and turn the idea into a viable sustainable company.”  (Evening Standard, City Comment, 1 May 2014).  Hilton is clear that HR professionals need to make things happen in business and so to recruit people with the right skills.   

The process for recruiting and promoting talented people must be on merit and potential, measured by objective criteria.  The process must reduce and ideally completely exclude any contamination caused by conscious or unconscious bias – this is the challenge for HR professionals who aspire to be seen as delivering business results.  Discrimination claims can easily be run on the basis of unconscious bias – no evidence of deliberation is necessary in many cases.  Our experience of training on such bias is that once you get over the hurdle of “How do I stop doing something I don’t know I’m doing?”, line managers will often be receptive to the idea that they should shine a light into some of the less frequented corners of their own psyches from time to time to pre-empt anything which may lurking there, unnoticed but malignant.  

Shareholders and venture capitalists do not want their companies to settle for mediocre people who fit some spurious set of characteristics; they want recruitment and succession of the best people available to protect and grow their investment.  Merit is blind and ruthlessly objective, but at least it’s fair.