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HR Leadership Column

Equalizing Opportunity

An initiative taking place in the UK is designed to ensure individuals from lower social-economic backgrounds are not excluded from opportunities. It's something HR leaders in the United States should think about as well.

Monday, February 20, 2012
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Anyone with national HR responsibilities has learned that doing business in California is, well, let's just say, "different."

Employment laws are typically more employee-friendly and expensive for employers, and if HR executives aren't careful, their company's nationwide employment policy stands a good chance of not working in California because of some unique regulatory requirement.

Once California adopts a new employment law, the legislation frequently moves east, as legislators in other states learn about the California experience and decide to give it a go where they live. As a result, it's always been a good idea to pay attention to what the California legislature considers and adopts; it may come to your state soon.

But, while many HR executives have been looking west to prepare for new trends, it might also be wise to pay attention to what's happening to the east. And by east, I mean way, way to the east: the United Kingdom.

That's where a group of 100 major businesses have signed on to a government initiative to try to end discrimination in employment.

So what's so unusual about that, you may ask? We all want to end discrimination, too, don't we?

Called the "Business Compact," the initiative asks businesses to "open their doors to people from all walks of life, regardless of their background." It is part of the government's efforts to "make society fair and ensure everyone has equal opportunities."

The government hopes to "encourage behavioral change in business," believing that "no one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential because of where they're born, the school they go to, or the jobs their parents do."

In other words, it's an effort to prevent discrimination based on socio-economic status.

There is much in the initiative to applaud -- signatories agree to raise aspirations of students by supporting communities and local schools, and agree to provide internships, "ensuring individuals from less well-off backgrounds are not excluded from opportunities."

The signatories to date aren't unknown companies, including Accenture, Airbus, Barclays, BP, Coca-Cola, IBM, Hewlett Packard and McDonalds. Even the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the UK equivalent of the Society for Human Resource Management, has signed on.

Companies are being asked to advertise internships openly, rather than relying on word of mouth.

In addition, among the interesting strategies companies are being asked to consider in an effort to promote a culture of "it's what you know, not who you know," they are being asked to:

"ensure that recruitment processes don't allow people to be inadvertently screened out because they went to the wrong school or come from a different ethnic group. This could include increased use of name-blank and school-blank applications where appropriate." [emphasis added]

This means using an application with no space for a person's name or educational background. Imagine the administrative challenges that could result from processing applicants without names -- and consider, too, how endearing applicants will find it when they are treated as numbers instead of people.

However, the notion of discrimination based on name has some foundation in academic research.

A few years ago, U.S. researchers sent fictitious, identical resumes to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers, with resumes randomly assigned African-American or white sounding names. White names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews, researchers found. (PDF)

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Research in the UK has found similar results.

The issue of discrimination based on attending the "wrong school" is probably less of an issue in the United States than in the UK, mostly because of the sheer numbers of schools here, compared to the UK.

But, if faced with a choice between an Ivy-League graduate and a state-college graduate, what might a hiring manager do?

And, importantly, is there anything wrong with picking a recent Ivy-League graduate over the state-college graduate, even though, theoretically, they both have degrees, and are equally qualified, educationally.

As the election year heats up, and we enter what those in Washington fondly describe as "the Silly Season," a key campaign issue will be the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, and how to address gaps in opportunity based on socio-economic status.

So, don't be surprised if some of these ideas being examined in the UK migrate east.

This initiative may provide some interesting insights on whether dropping names and schools makes a difference. Wisely, the UK government hasn't dictated a cookie-cutter approach to the issue and has made participation entirely voluntary. Companies can decide what steps make sense for their particular circumstances and industry.

But, here's the question for HR executives in the United States to contemplate: What would happen in your organization if names and schools were blocked from the view of hiring managers? Would it matter? And should it?

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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