How your organisation employs people is at the heart of its commitment to equality. The advert, application form, interview, the practical test (if you have one) and how you manage probation periods is an opportunity to address internal inequality and help shift the values and culture of your organisation.
I’ve worked in charities, NGOs and cooperatives for over twenty years, in areas of mental health, learning disabilities, environment, human rights and housing. Over the years I’ve designed many recruitment processes, shortlisted hundreds of candidates and interviewed dozens of people for jobs, including volunteers, permanent and short term staff, maternity cover and consultants.
What follows are real life examples that you can use to shape recruitment in your organisation. The examples I’ve used are just that – examples. Once you’ve got the basic legal requirements and good practice in place, you can tailor your recruitment process so it best reflects your organisation’s needs and values.
This is an important exercise. It’s so much more than just a series of processes.
It’s an opportunity to ask:
What kind of place do we want to be? What kind of teams do we want? How do we want our staff to flourish?
If I had to pick two key recruitment observations from over the years, they’d be:
- Interviews can be life-changing for people, so you need to treat the process with due seriousness, and the applicants with compassion and respect to match this;
- Make adequate planning, action and follow up time. You always need more than you think and organisations rarely factor in enough time.
Planning the recruitment process
Auditing the needs of the existing team is a good start. What does the team need to be able to carry out its work? There’s a heap of analysis you can do to make sure everyone is clear about what’s needed from a new or replacement role. Take the time to ‘map the gaps’ in your existing work and in your future plans. For example, PIRC spent time listing everything that they do in their jobs, all the work they’re committed to, followed by all the things they don’t do, but could, should or want to do. They were left with a clear list of skills and knowledge they’d need to achieve future plans. Mapping these gaps provides vital information that can feed into your new role.
Mapping the gaps in skills and knowledge is one thing. Noticing and addressing the gaps in who is underrepresented in your organisation can be an uncomfortable process for some people, and can result in clumsy attempts to address diversity. Too often I’ve heard phrases like: ‘we need a woman on the management team,’ ‘we need a person from a minority group,’ or ‘we need to get better at talking to working class people.’ Making long term changes to the dominant culture of your organisation won’t be a quick process, and requires thinking through which groups have the most power and decision making influence in your organisation. Who is visible, who sets the direction, who is listened to and taken seriously? There is a mass of ever-evolving information about anti-oppressive practices for workplaces, but finding a facilitator to take your organisation through this process can help.
Some good starting points for thinking through some of these issues are Class Action for thinking through some questions about power in your workplace, and Inclusive Boards, for stronger diversity and governance. Unions, such as Unite, and practical and legal advice from places like ACAS are valuable resources.
Some organisations have a different approach to recruitment. One workplace I know replaces staff as fast as possible, using more or less the same job description unless there’s a clear need to review the role. This mitigates the temptation to ‘absorb’ the roles into the rest of team and ‘save’ money. Sound familiar, in our cash strapped organisations? Absorbing roles might be a practical and financial necessity sometimes, but if it’s happening often, then you need to think about the long term impact and review your recruitment procedures.
A note about replacing staff quickly: if you have a good review/appraisal system in place, where roles are regularly monitored and updated accordingly, this will make replacing staff easier as the job description will have already evolved from its original incarnation. (There’ll be future blog posts in this series about mentoring, co-coaching, appraisals and other methods of updating and developing roles, job descriptions and evaluating organisational culture).
Where to place your recruitment adverts
Here is your opportunity to proactively seek out applications from people you need for your team and organisation, by researching the best places to advertise. For example, a human rights organisation I worked with was committed to centering the voices of marginalised groups of people, and knew that it was over-represented by white, middle and upper middle class straight men and women. For an organisation committed to equality and anti-oppressive practice, this was less than ideal. The usual way of placing adverts – on charity and NGO forums, or email lists – was reproducing this demographic of applicants. To mitigate this, they spent time seeking out the best places to advertise – on and offline – where people of colour, LGBTQI people and working class and other marginalised groups would be more likely to see and respond to the job advert. They asked advice from community groups and grassroots organisers on where to place adverts. They specified clearly that they hoped people from the under-represented groups would apply.
You find out where to advertise by thinking carefully about where the people you need for your team will see and read the advert. Recruitment boards like Charity Job might be appropriate, but the more time you take to put yourself in the shoes of those whose applications you want to attract, the better. Then you can post the adverts in those specific places and ask specific people and groups to share the job advert for you.
For instance, I work in an organisation in Wales, and yet we are underrepresented by Welsh speakers. If we wanted Welsh speaking people to read the advert, apart from ensuring it’s bilingual, we might talk to teachers and tutors in Welsh schools and colleges about their career open days and where their students are likely to see and respond to job adverts. If you don’t know people from the demographic groups you are seeking, think about who can network you with them. Teachers, youth leaders, places of worship, libraries. Once you’ve ‘mapped your gaps’ you can think through where to find people.
Social media is particularly useful for this. If you’re hoping for a greater number of people with mixed ability, or women are underrepresented in your research and campaigns, for example, there will usually be an online group that can help. Charities and advocacy groups can be easily found on facebook and twitter and will often help share job adverts for you.
Shifting organisational culture
Recruitment is a key tool for shifting organisational culture. Culture is deeply and intangibly embedded in organisations. Organisational culture is a mix of shared stories and values. It originates from employees, history, location, management styles, strategy and much more. Organisations contain different cultures – subcultures – in different departments, areas of work and at different times.
At the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), my current workplace, organisational culture has developed over forty-five years, based on the history and stories of the organisation.
Familiar cultural ‘stories’ about CAT might be: ‘it’s all vegetarian/they walk the walk.’ Some are misconceptions based on hearsay and rumours; some contain half-truths, but they build a ‘feel’ or ‘picture’ of the place, and people who apply for jobs will have absorbed these stories and continue them or subvert them.
Aspects of your culture can be discovered in what outsiders say about you and you might be surprised what people think your organisation is like. This is always good feedback. Feedback from candidates about why they are applying to your organisation is really useful for this. Ask that question: why do you want to work here/what do you know about us? and see what answers you get.
Shifting the organisational culture requires much more than updating vision and mission statements, or rebranding exercises. Culture can take years to change. It shifts gradually with staff changes, so if you want to be an organisation that’s more diverse, and can reach out to different groups, you need a diverse workforce. Sounds simple, but if your organisation mainly attracts a certain type of demographic, then redesigning your recruitment process will help change this.
Imagine you want to ensure that your organisation is more family friendly. You might have noticed that your teams are full of twenty somethings. Maybe you’ve noticed that few people have dependants. This has definitely been the case in a couple of charities I’ve worked in and it can create unhealthy aspects to the work culture, particularly in terms of overwork and ‘presenteeism.’ You can begin to change this with your job adverts.
For instance, instead of saying: ‘We encourage people with children or other dependants to apply’ say something like: ‘Let us know if you’d like childcare or similar costs to be covered for your interview or if you require an interview during school hours.’
Or, if you’re keen not to put off people with different abilities, instead of ‘we welcome applications from people with different abilities,’ say, the interview is on a ground floor with wheelchair access, and please do contact [named person] to discuss anything you might need to access and take part in an interview process.’
The latter examples are more active, less passive. It shows rather than tells that you are an employer who is flexible and conscious of the needs of parents, carers or people with disabilities. It’s clear that there is no inconvenience.
Internal versus external recruitment
Consider whether an ‘internal’ recruitment is appropriate in the first instance. It’s perfectly ok to recruit internal candidates in the first instance. Often overlooked, the possibility of asking volunteers, or, if you’re in a hierarchical organisation, less senior members of staff to apply, can save time and money. In some organisations I’ve worked in there’s a misconception that an ‘outside’ person will be more qualified or better at the job. It’s true that a new person can bring fresh perspectives, but existing staff can also gather new ideas if you foster a culture of collaborative practice and training opportunities. A repeated platitude in some organisations is that existing staff are the ‘greatest asset.’ This kind of statement grows hollow if existing staff are repeatedly overlooked for new roles. If they’re never supported to develop and challenge themselves, staff will leave. Again, this should be considered based on your organisation’s tendencies. If on the other hand your organisation views outsiders as a risk and tries to mainly recruit internally, that’s a different problem.
A mental health charity I worked in was very good at internal recruitment. Volunteers were often recovering mental health service users and the charity worked hard to ensure that people were supported to move into paid roles or trustee and board positions. Unsurprisingly, there was a refreshing culture of maintaining good mental health across the organisation.
What if you don‘t find the right candidate?
So you’ve put your advert in all the right places. You’ve taken advice from the right people on where to place it. But no-one applies who fits the bill. You can redo the advert. Try again. Taking the time to get it right, is better than employing people with your fingers crossed. This is why the planning process is so important. If you factor in ‘things that might go wrong/timelines that might slip,’ then you can absorb this kind of eventuality.
Make sure your application process reflects the values and (intended) culture of your organisation. Bureaucratic, long and intimidating forms will tend to attract graduates, first language English and confident people. If you want to attract a wider section of the population, and I’m guessing most charities and NGOs do – or at least say they do – proactively designing your application forms to address this will help.
Try testing out your form on people from your target groups before hand. Asking people’s opinion outside of the organisation is really useful. In the mental health charity I mentioned, we asked service users we worked with how to design application questions that were ‘friendly’ towards people who’d been out of work for long periods. We took out the sections that indicated chronological work history, and inserted sentences like: ‘We understand that many people have periods away from work. Please feel free to tell us about time you’ve taken out of work if you’d like to.’ This was appropriate at this charity, as the demographic of people they wanted to recruit more of – people who’ve experienced mental ill health – were nervous about accounting for employment gaps.
We designed our questions so that they were less focussed on paid work and more focussed on unwaged work, and clarified the kind of information we wanted. For instance, a question about team working could go:
Tell us about your teamwork skills.’ Then elaborate ‘what experience and knowledge do you bring to a group of people – this might be in a voluntary parenting group, an activist group, family setting or a workplace. Eg, you could ask people you know what they’ve noticed about your strengths and skills.’
The needs of your organisation will require a different approach, and possibly different approaches with each recruitment. Analyse historical patterns and adjust the application according to what you’d like to change. There are ‘good practice’ examples, but no one size fits all.
Communicate with candidates
How you treat people during an application process will form an impression of your organisation and generate word of mouth feedback, so treating people honestly is crucial. People are going to be rejected* from the process and this can be difficult and upsetting. Setting out the process very clearly at the beginning gives a good impression. Let people know what stages they will go through and when they will hear from you. If you are very busy and lacking in time, and you think you can’t reply to everyone who applies, then say this. People won’t mind if you clearly state at the beginning of the process what you can and can’t do, and why.
However, if you can make time to email and phone people, all the better. One organisation I worked for knew that many friends of existing staff and people who had close ties with the organisations applied for their jobs. They often had to reject high numbers of people they knew personally and professionally. They were clear that they didn’t want to damage relationships with these people in the longer term so they decided to look through the applications and find the people they knew and send them a personal email at the beginning of the process. It simply said that they were aware that the person had a close relationship with the organisation, and they valued that dearly. They were really pleased that [candidate x] had applied, but were also aware that sadly, many people would not be selected for interview. They then outlined their application and interview process to demonstrate its fairness and reiterated that they wished [candidate x] much luck and hoped to see or speak to them soon.
This wouldn’t be useful for every organisation, but for this organisation, their relationship with their wider community of friends and allies was a high priority. They knew that the jobs were sought after and that many applicants valued being a wider part of their organisation’s ‘community.’ Their compassionate and personal communications reflected this.
It’s a small world in some sectors, such as environment or human rights, and the numbers of applications can be overwhelming. It’s often the case that people leading the application process will know many of the applicants. Some clear and human-centered communications can help smooth the process.
*I’ve used words like ‘rejection’ and ‘successful.’ It’s possible these words can be substituted for less ‘achievement’ oriented words. The words and phrases used will paint a picture of the values of your organisation. ‘The candidate we selected for this role….’ I’m sorry that your skills and experience didn’t fit this particular role this time…’ Thinking about the impression your organisation wants to give and choosing words that reflect this can be illuminating. An interesting exercise is to run some key sections of text from your policies or website through a lexical indicator to pick out key, frequent active words used and the imagery they create.
Hopefully at this point you’ve advertised in the right places and you’ve got a diverse mix of applicants. Having clear scoring criteria and plenty of time to access the applications is crucial. The scoring helps steer the application ‘panel’ in a less prejudicial way. You can have key points to look for. E.g. if one of your criteria was ‘experience of line managing volunteers,’ then you can look out for how the applicant has described this and have a pre-existing ‘weighting’ for it. If managing volunteers is the main component of the job, then it can be weighted more heavily than, say, social media skills.
By the end you should have a fairly accurate scoring system that you can easily compare and helps avoid situations like, ‘…but I know Dave, he worked at [generic charity x] and he was great.’
Other ways to create fairness might be to ‘redact’ certain information, like name, age, gender, school and university. This helps create a more level playing field. If the job doesn’t expressly require a university degree, there’s no need to have that information on display. It’s the kind of information that can subconsciously sway people in their decision making. I once witnessed a fellow panel member, noting and pointing out the private schools of some of the applicants. The implication was that these candidates were a higher calibre of applicant because of their schooling.
PIRC sometimes asks a separate staff member from the scoring panel to go through the applications and redact out unnecessary information. Alternatively, you could save time and not ask for it! Although you might still have to check through the applications to see if it’s slipped in via other questions. You may also need it for monitoring purposes.
These are just a few of the practical ways you can adjust your application processes. The key takeaway message is for your organisation to develop systems to match your aims and values. A baseline of fully legal and best practice is vital, then find ways that you can shape the process to fit with the particular needs of your workplace and your future plans.
- Legal and HR resources ACAS
- Good practice advice for top-down structures ACEVO
- Seeds for Change for flat-structured organisations
- Unite the Union
I’ve worked in charities, NGOs and cooperatives for over twenty years, in management and fundraising positions. I ran a mental health project for Rethink for five years, co-directed a large housing co-op for ten years, led a two-year management review at The Centre for Alternative Technology, worked on the Management Group of Platform London, and helped PIRC transition their management structure from hierarchical, to flat. I’ve design recruitment, appraisal and mentoring systems for many groups and organisations, always under the vision of: how can we make our workplaces stress free, fulfilling and representative of the people we are trying to make visible?
On a personal level, I come from a lower working class background, and grew up around high levels of mental, physical and learning disability, which has helped teach me how workplaces often replicate patterns of inequality, despite many good intentions, and what kinds of systems can promote inclusivity.
I have a Postgraduate Diploma in Environmental Policy and a took a year-long course with Southampton Area Co-operative Development Agency on how to set up and run Co-operatives and Social Firms.
‘So, you’re about to recruit?’ is an extract from Work in Progress, a blog series collating some of the good practices I’ve learned ‘on the job’ with the many amazing people I’ve worked with, especially at Hamwic Housing Co-op, Rethink, PIRC, Platform and The Centre for Alternative Technology. Future blogs in this series will cover the interview process, probation periods and mentoring and line management.