Don’t say Disadvantaged – The skills your company could be missing out on

“Individuals are far more than the disadvantages they experience…employers must understand that such strengths can exist because of, not in spite of challenging circumstances” – The Overlooked Advantage

At The Brokerage we help our partner companies better recruit and retain young people from underrepresented backgrounds as they start their careers. One of the most important things we can help companies with is to change their mindsets. To help them stop thinking of young people from working class or ethnic minority backgrounds as somehow lacking or ‘disadvantaged’ and instead realise that in fact people from these backgrounds have the skills they need, and with a few changes to recruitment practices they can recruit those young people, rather than losing them to their competitors. 

For a start – why call them ‘disadvantaged’?

I don’t mean we should pretend that people don’t face difficulties. Of course they do. But here at The Brokerage we definitely think starting the conversation with the things people may lack just isn’t useful. Particularly when we have so often seen our partner companies compete to hire Brokerage candidates because those candidates have so many skills that employers want – skills that are often developed because of their backgrounds. 

Coming from a low-income ethnic minority background, our work at The Brokerage personally resonates with me. I have sometimes felt compelled to change myself to fit the ‘corporate mould’. From code-switching to imposter syndrome to thinking that I didn’t have enough of the ‘right’ work experience,  I know all too well the barriers underrepresented young people face when embarking on their careers. 

This helps me understand who our candidates are and what they need. It also helps me to support our partner companies in better understanding the talented young people they want to hire.

The skills you need

Our report The Overlooked Advantage used interviews with Brokerage alumni and their employers to look at the skills and qualities they have demonstrated in the workplace due to – not in spite of – their different background to ‘traditional’ candidates. These skills and qualities included:

  • Readiness to learn
  • Desire for excellence
  • Emotional and cultural intelligence
  • Creativity
  • Resilience

“I was much more determined to succeed, [to] show that I appreciate the opportunity given to me. People like me don’t get into companies like this.” – Brokerage candidate

These skills can be developed at a price and we should not ignore the personal costs to young people who have faced challenges because of their backgrounds. But, by becoming aware of how challenging circumstances can become a source of strengths and reframing how ‘disadvantaged’ young people are viewed – especially by developing the empathy of hiring managers – employers can ensure they attract and retain the very best talent. 

These are skills employers want, so why can they not always see them in young people from underrepresented backgrounds?

Even though they want these skills in their new hires, existing recruitment practices do not always let employers see them in a candidate’s application or interview. For example, they can be hard to spot if you are relying too much on relatively poor proxies for talent. Academic achievements do not mean much without the context in which they were achieved – achieving A level grades ABB at an under-resourced state school might in fact be a more impressive achievement than obtaining the same grades at a private school.

Similarly, skills gained through traditional work experience or extracurriculars can be easier to spot than those from less traditional activities. But if you only know to look for these traditional activities – captaining sports teams, structured internship programmes – you might miss the non-traditional ways of developing the same skills. This is a problem because people from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds can’t always afford to take part in unpaid internships or expensive extra-curricular activities.

Young people for their part might lack the confidence to relate their lived experience to the skills and qualities that employers are looking for. They might not see their strengths as something to shout about – their perceptions of themselves through imposter syndrome, structural barriers and other experiences of systemic oppression mean they might feel it’s just a part of what they do to survive. Even if they do recognise these skills in themselves, they might think they can’t talk about them if they were not gained through the traditional activities they assume companies want to hear about. Faced with a prestigious company in grand offices where everyone looks so polished, the skills you picked up working at a corner-shop or care home can feel embarrassing to mention. 

What can employers do to fix this? Help hiring managers contextualise and understand young people’s skills.These skills might not come up in applications or interviews if you don’t ask the right questions. Or hiring managers might hear about these experiences, but because what they’re hearing doesn’t match their ideas of what ‘good’ looks like, you still might miss them. So consider how you can train people to ask the right questions and spot the skills they are really looking for. 

3 steps to take:

Step 1 – Develop organisational capacity to understand and empathise with underrepresented young people

Think about how you can address the negative stereotypes and biases held (consciously or unconsciously) about less-advantaged young people. Provide employees with information that contradicts stereotypes and allows them to connect with people whose experiences differ from theirs. Consider training programmes, or maybe reverse mentoring programmes to achieve this.

Ideally, you could directly expose employees to real-life talented young people with relevant career aspirations. You could do this by hosting outreach events and insight days as well as longer term relationship building opportunities such as mentoring, work experience and internships.

Step 2 – Design equitable selection methods that allow underrepresented young people to contextualise their strengths

Review all stages of your existing processes to identify implicit barriers and biases.

How are jobs presented and advertised? Have you used lots of unnecessary jargon that a new starter might not need to know before they apply? Have you invested in early outreach (such as college or uni visits), limited employee referral schemes, or incentivised recruiters to provide diverse shortlists? What about actively discussing what ‘good’ looks like, and whether you’re accidentally selecting for irrelevant characteristics like accent or the way people look? 

During interviews, have hiring managers emphasise to candidates that they can use examples that draw on life experiences, not just formal work experience, education and extracurriculars. Consider using scenario-based interviews and assessment centres to appreciate a candidate’s potential – rather than relying on examples from previous experience, these approaches invite candidates to imagine what they would do in situations that model a typical workplace challenge.

Another example of good practice is taking a highly structured approach to assessment, with required competencies pre-defined and understood by the hiring team, and – in some cases – having a standardised bank of questions that managers could choose from, with each question linked to a specific competency being tested, thereby reducing any personal bias.

Step 3 – Support young people’s transition to the workplace with the right organisational culture

The true measure of an inclusive recruitment process is whether underrepresented young people thrive in the workplace after being offered a role.

The Brokerage’s young people have told us that ‘code switching’ continues after the interview – in changing their appearance, using a different ‘workplace voice’, or eating lunch alone to avoid questions about their traditional foods.

This reinforces the distance between different groups of staff, limiting opportunities for knowledge exchange and mutual learning, for harnessing the strengths that underrepresented young people bring.

We recommend you consider ways to facilitate their transition into the workplace, helping them build meaningful and mutually beneficial connections with the rest of staff. This might be through informal buddy schemes alongside traditional line management. It might include reverse mentoring or other methods of helping staff understand different perspectives. 

Whatever you choose, the aim is to ensure people feel part of the workplace culture, not excluded from it. 

‘Disadvantage’ exists, and no-one is saying it doesn’t. But if you or your employees are thinking of people from working class or ethnically diverse backgrounds purely in terms of ‘disadvantage’, there’s a good chance you’ll actually be missing out on talented people who could add so much to your workplace. 

This blog post was adapted from a talk given by Jennifer Hien, Senior Deliver and Innovation Manager, at PIMFA’s Talent Diversity and Inclusion conference in December 2022.

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  • The staff at The Brokerage are tremendously good at supporting their candidates. I felt really comfortable whenever asking for advice and always had quick replies to my emails. The team truly is selfless in their work and I can’t thank them enough – these opportunities have been incredible.

    Brokerage Intern