Chris Johns: Consciously or unconsciously are we just hiring people like us?

Inequality, in all its forms, is everyone’s responsibility

Employers need not wait for governments to act on the issues thrown up by the Black Lives Matter protests. Photograph: Chris Creese/The New York Times

Employers need not wait for governments to act on the issues thrown up by the Black Lives Matter protests. Photograph: Chris Creese/The New York Times

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Denis Goldberg, recently deceased, was the youngest defendant at the infamous 1963 Rivonia Trial alongside Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders. He served 22 years in prison, but not with Mandela and his other comrades. He had to serve his time in a whites-only jail.

Through a series of unlikely circumstances, I got to know Denis after his release in 1985. He arrived in London via Israel. Denis’s commitment to racial equality in particular and non-discrimination in general was total. Shortly after his release, he managed to upset some of his Israeli hosts with comments about the Palestinian question.

His devotion to Marxism was obvious, as much from a sociological as from a purely economic perspective. Denis was concerned with the distribution of power as well as the material spoils of capitalism. As a young stockbroker I had some very lively conversations with him about the merits of the market economy.

One of my most treasured possessions is an old two-volume copy of one of the very first economics text-books, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. The books carried an unusual inscription: “cover slips off for purposes of inspection”. Denis had studied for multiple degrees in prison – the books were originally his and had to be available to his jailers in case he was hiding sedition under the covers.

I was an unlikely stockbroker. Council estate comprehensive schools were escaped via a couple of degrees, the first of which wasn’t even from a university, let alone Oxbridge. The world of finance nevertheless managed to find me via contacts made while teaching at Cambridge and an equally implausible job at the peak of the UK civil service, the treasury.

Upper classes

The City, London’s financial district, traditionally employed young men (almost always), scions of the upper classes who could not be found jobs in government, the army or the professions. Anybody with any talent who managed to get into investment banking immediately stood out. The City was forced to fish in deeper and wider talent pools thanks to changes in government regulations. Therein lies a lesson in government-inspired change with contemporary resonance.

Both the City and the treasury were bastions of privilege, usually white. The elite jobs of the civil service were reserved almost entirely for Oxbridge graduates. While it was possible to witter on about meritocracy and somehow rationalise the selection criteria, the benefit of hindsight reveals subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination.

Denis lived his values and paid a heavy price for them. I would have loved to have discussed with him the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter protests. I’d guess he would say lots of things but first would be the observation that we have been talking about discrimination for long enough and the time for action, for proper change, has arrived.

A few years ago I attended a diversity workshop, the sort of thing that enlightened employers run to try to do something about discrimination. Shown a photograph of a young woman dressed in goth-type gear and with a spider-web neck tattoo, we were asked about whether our hiring practices would embrace offering her a job.

One participant got into trouble with the workshop convener by suggesting that a customer-facing financial services company could rarely employ somebody like that. The reasons given, of course, focused on “objective” criteria and had nothing to do with bias or anything discriminatory. It wasn’t about our bias, it was argued, but, because of the beliefs – prejudices perhaps – of customers and/or other stakeholders, firms couldn’t risk hiring outside the tribe.

Even if all of this was true, a responsible employer shouldn’t pander to prejudice wherever it occurs. Even if it does carry business risk: Denis would argue that these are precisely the risks that each of us needs to take.

Brown shoes

I once knew an investment banker who terminated an interview because the candidate was wearing brown shoes. We deride, I hope, that sort of thing these days, but I still wonder about the acceptability of the tattoo.

Shoes, body ink and the rest send, we believe, wider signals about who we are and what tribe we belong to. We then infer likely behaviours and, more generally, suitability for the job.

All sorts of arguments can be presented about whether these inferences are appropriate or whether they are just discriminatory: consciously or unconsciously are we just hiring people like us?

Action rather than words are needed. Boris Johnson has responded to the protests by launching another inquiry into race relations. His critics suggest he should just implement the recommendations of the many similar reports that gather dust on government shelves.

Employers need not wait for governments to act. Hiring practices can evolve further (we should acknowledge those who are already acting in more progressive ways). Ask for applications that are colour blind – often someone’s name can reveal ethnicity. Demand name-free application forms.

Ask for educational qualifications, but not where they were obtained. Applications can be gender-free. Each of us must face up to the obvious need for higher wages for the people who clean and care for us. I could go on.

Pre-Covid it was obvious that our winner-takes-all world involves discrimination on steroids. It’s a lot to do with race but much else besides. As Denis Goldberg exemplified, inequality, in all its forms, is everyone’s responsibility.

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