How can we recruit more BME talent in the workplace?

By | May 28, 2013

It is generally agreed that if your workforce broadly represents the wider community, it is better for business and your organisation. Decisions made are likely to be more balanced and informed, and there are many benefits to having access to wider networks.


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There has been much written about the fact that boards with a mix of men and women make better business decisions, including by Women on Boards and An Inspirational Journey (companies with gender balanced boards achieve 42% higher return on sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity).

But what about ensuring there is adequate BME representation in our boardrooms and professional workforces?



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Different cultural attitudes related to nationality can be quite surprising, as we found in this research on attitudes to leadership. And building ethnically diverse workforces is also a hot topic at the moment, especially since Conservative vice chairman Alok Sharma recently proposed a voluntary code asking companies to set out the racial composition of their workforce.

Here in Bradford, we have a very ethnically diverse population, but is this reflected adequately in our workforces? Unfortunately it often isn’t, and this becomes especially noticeable in certain professional careers. Having identified a distinct lack of black and minority ethnic (BME) representation in the arts, Arts Council England has recently announced a new programme of national events to encourage more people from BME backgrounds into careers in the arts.



Mela 2011

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Barriers to BME recruitment – and alternative recruitment methods

I was commissioned to conduct research to identify the barriers that trade unions encounter when trying to recruit BME workers within Yorkshire and the Humber, and provide recommendations for alternative recruitment methods to encourage more applications from BME candidates.

Note that this isn’t an exercise in “positive discrimination”, which has been much maligned for being patronising and unfair. It is about ensuring that recruitment methods and channels are equally accessible to people from all ethnic backgrounds, and that information about professional careers is presented in a way that means BME candidates feel encouraged to apply. And much of this is about reaching out to those communities through their established trusted networks.

tuc_LogoFive key broad recommendations were made to the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) proposing a shift away from workplace based recruitment strategies towards collaboration with already established community and faith groups, learning centres and engagement with the wider community.

Wide dissemination through practitioner reports, a sitting presence on the Racial  Awareness and Equality Forum and numerous presentations  directly influenced the regional TUC’s policy on BME recruitment, community engagement and anti-fascist campaigns. It also resulted in a number of affiliated trade unions adopting the report recommendations and developing community approaches.

Furthermore, these recommendations were subsequently integrated into a National TUC policy document (Swords of Justice and Civil Pillars, 2010) resulting in policy change at the national level in respect of community engagement. This resulted in the Yorkshire and the Humber regional TUC offering a series of small grants to conduct research on how unions within the region could improve their representation of BME and new migrant workers.


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Here are the three key elements to the research into BME workforce representation and BME recruitment:

(1) Trade Unions and BME Communities: Employment Representation and Community Organisation in a Context of Change – The initial research incorporated a survey of voluntary community groups within Yorkshire and the Humber to establish three things; first where BME and migrant workers went for employment advice, second what their view of trade unions was, and third whether there was a potential to build alliances between trade unions and community groups. This was accompanied by qualitative interviews with directors and project workers from BME and migrant community groups. This initial research report, found that even though unions were still perceived as white, workplace based organisations, they were not viewed negatively and the potential for collaboration and community engagement was great.

(2) Social Inclusion and Representation strategies in the Workplace and Community: BME workers and innovative trade union responses – The second project was commissioned for us to identify and publicise best practice cases where unions were working with community groups. Amongst the recommendations for this second report was the continued support for anti-fascist groups, community advice centres and community learning centres.

(3) Migrant Workers and the Recognition of their Qualification and Skills – The final project commissioned by Yorkshire and the Humber TUC to identify the benefits trade unions had generated by providing training, or for example language skills, to migrant workers.

As well as the recommendations which were acted upon by individual unions, I had surveyed, visited and interviewed a large number of BME and other voluntary sector community support groups and provided a detailed list of potential collaborative partners to individual trade unions.

Different unions implemented the recommendations in different ways, with the overarching goal of building alliances within the community and establishing community links:

  • UNITE employed a full-time community co-ordinator based in the Yorkshire and the Humber region. This co-ordinator has set up branches and is currently collaborating with regional Citizens’ Advice Bureau.
  • The GMB within the region have also taken their community work forward following this research employing a part-time officer within the region.
  • Leeds Trades Union Council, comprised of representatives from a number of different regional trades unions, has held a stall at the ‘Leeds West Indian Carnival’, to disseminate information and build community links. This model has also been rolled out to work with BME communities across the region, such as at the ‘Bradford Mela’ and ‘One Sheffield Many Cultures’.
  • Bill Adams, regional secretary of the Yorkshire and the Humber TUC, stated that: “This research and these findings have proved invaluable in enabling the TUC and its affiliated trades unions in the Yorkshire and the Humber region to re-connect, organise and campaign to increase trade union membership in BME and migrant workers communities, leading to clear improvements for workers within our region”.

The reports were presented personally to Brendan Barber (then General Secretary of the National TUC). The reports subsequently produced national impact as they informed national policy. Recommendations were incorporated, and frequently referenced, in a national policy document designed to change the labour movements’ approach to engaging with minority ethnic communities. The document was called Swords of Justice & Civic Pillars: The case for greater engagement between British trade unions and community organisations and was published in November 2010.

Iain Murray, Senior Policy Advisor for the TUC said “there has been a long-standing positive impact of the academic work of Dr Rob Perrett and Professor Miguel Martinez Lucio on building the capacity of the TUC and the wider union movement to improve its representation of black and minority (BME) members and to increase union involvement within the BME community. This has positively impacted on TUC policy and practice in this sphere at both the regional and national level.”

Clearly there is a demand for knowledge and advice on BME recruitment and alternative methods, and trade unions are now using the results of research in this area to inform their own policies, both regionally and nationally.

The challenge now is for these practices to become much more widely adopted by all recruiting organisations. Is there adequate resourcing available for this to happen? Is it viable?

I’d love to hear comments on how your organisation ensures that recruitment methods are accessible to BME applicants, and indeed to both men and women from all socio-economic backgrounds.

Have you had success with particular methods and channels? Any advice on what has worked (or hasn’t for your organisation?

A further reading list is available on the Bradford University School of Management website.

More about Dr Robert Perrett – Associate Professor in Human Resource Management; Researcher and Reader in HRM at Bradford University School of Management