By Steve Gulati, Senior Fellow, Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham
A recent Resolution Foundation briefing paper exploring the economic impact of COVID-19 on youth unemployment told a blunt story, finding “…that 16-24-year-olds have accounted for a disproportionately large share (57 per cent) of the fall in employment that’s occurred over the past year”. When viewed through the lens of racial inequality, however, the picture was even more stark – before the impact of the pandemic, already extraordinary figures of a quarter of economically active black 16-24 year olds were unemployed, rising to an astonishing 34% by the final quarter of 2020-21. What does this tell us about inclusivity in the workplace, and what can businesses to do to make their recruitment processes fairer?
It is important to recognise that inclusivity in the workplace is not something that can occur in isolation, and desirable as it is, is not a panacea to wider ills. It is also important not to conflate diverse workplaces with those which are inclusive – very homogenous workplaces can be highly inclusive (until they encounter difference), and a highly diverse workforce deeply divided, with informal but distinct segregation. Workplace culture is critical in creating an inclusive climate, and culture itself is a highly nuanced phenomenon. Similarly, recruitment processes cannot be separated from an organisation’s wider employment practices – who gets promoted, developed, encouraged, praised? Who gets disciplined, put onto performance improvement processes? This gets noticed. Recruitment practices are obviously important, and some of the practical steps are established and in place in many organisations: robust and transparent person specifications, ensuring diverse selection panels, training around diversity and bias as part of recruitment and selection, and using ‘ambassadors’ or champions to illustrate that an employer, or an industry is indeed for ‘people like us’. In terms of measures that individual employers can take, there are a plethora of guides, best practice indicators, and self-assessment tools available from professional bodies, employer’s organisations or trade union groups such as the CIPD, CBI or TUC. From a strategic perspective, however, taking a wider view of employment culture is arguably more important than isolated measures around recruitment.
The impact of unemployment on wider life chances and as a health determinant has been extensively researched, with negative impacts especially around mental health, family life, and other wealth and income-related factors such as housing and access to education. Equally important is the impact of poor quality employment – jobs which are poorly paid, perceived as low-skilled or low-status, or have low levels of autonomy. Framing this more widely as a matter of (racial) injustice is instructive. The very fact of being employed can have significant benefits, but the story does not end there – once in employment, issues such as promotion, inclusion, being valued and so forth are again unequal, and the psychological impact on individuals and groups with regard to feelings of belonging and inclusion may be insidious, but significant. Entry into employment is a critical first step, but there are many other steps around involvement, engagement, respect and inclusion that quickly follow.
So, there is no simple checklist or prescription that can magically solve the issue of youth unemployment exacerbated by racial inequality. As is so often the case, understanding the problem and issues better is a critical first step in considering remedies, and a wide range of stakeholders – legislators, educators, and employers – play a pivotal role in developing that.
Steve Gulati is a Fellow of the CIPD and prior to joining the University of Birmingham worked as a Director of Human Resources.