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How can hiring help? by Yasmin Jones-Henry

It’s been shown time and time again how diversity improves creativity output. It’s simultaneously been proven how the design industry – in all its many facets – is still stuck behind so many other industries in terms of its cultural and ethnic make up. What role does HR have to play in creating a level playing field and, ultimately, improving the creative potential of design?

Nicole Cramer is the newly appointed global chief of staff at creative agency Spring Studios. As a woman of colour operating at the highest level in the field, she has seen first hand how the industry needs to change. According to Cramer, it takes decisive action. “I am not the norm,” she says. “[Statistics such as] 95% white male in the C-suite can only transform into a more balanced statistic when we practice conscious inclusion: when we ask ourselves what voices are missing and we seek to ensure that those missing have the opportunity to join, to be heard, to be promoted – to be included.”

Quotas have long been the tried and tested way of measuring diversity. Looking at the financial services sector, they have proven to be an effective way of benchmarking progress in recruitment stats, especially on the board and at executive level. They are not without their critics though. Nene Petrosam is an art director at We Are Stripes, an agency that showcases BAME role models and mentors within the creative industry. She cautions against the use of quotas by agencies merely looking to ‘put bums on seats’. “The problem with quotas is that they can be dehumanising in the way they reduce BAME employees into mere statistics. Are you looking for a creative team member or a percentage for your spreadsheet?” she says.

Doing away with quotas and instead helping candidates get into roles is something high on Petrosam’s agenda. We Are Stripes was created to help correct the imbalance in the creative industry – especially in advertising. Their clients include The Dots, Verizon Media and Hill + Knowlton Strategies.

Creative Access is another initiative set up to create a pipeline of young talent from ethnic minority backgrounds into the arts. Since it was established in 2012, Creative Access has worked with over 20,000 BAME candidates on helping prepare their CVs and offer interview practice ahead of applications to roles within the creative industry. Making a commitment to social mobility too, they also assist candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds by facilitating paid internships and providing an opportunities board for organisations to list their roles.

Creative Access has an 84% success rate in placing their candidates in full time employment after their internships. It collaborates with over 300 employers such as Apple, ITV and the National Theatre, demonstrating how these specialist platforms can support both the industry and the candidate in the pursuit of employment and corporate success. No need for quotas.

Prior to my career in journalism, I spent a year working as a recruitment advisor for one of the largest B2B conglomerates and bespoke consumer publishing houses in Europe. Needless to say, recruiters are the gatekeepers to any organisation. They operate as a buffer between the recruiting directors and the candidates and implement the C-suite’s corporate vision. However, the responsibility for improving diversity in design does not lie with HR alone, but ultimately with the heads of department.

Recruiters find the candidates that directors want, which often ended up in predictable situations (in my experience, while sales and IT departments tended to have a higher proportion of BAME staff, editorial and art departments were almost exclusively white). There were exceptions, including one particularly diverse team at an events company. The director there insisted on a team that could appeal to its international clients around the world and was personally very invested in recruitment. Others, not so much. I was warned on my first week that other directors would be more likely reject any candidate with a non-English sounding name or an accent.

This has led to the rise of blind hiring, the process of removing any revealing details from resumés that could hit any biases, conscious or otherwise. Petrosam at We Are Stripes is sceptical. “While some may say blind hiring is great because it enables the candidate to be viewed on merit, I’d question how the creative industries – a sector that claims to want to capitalise on uniqueness and edge doesn’t grasp how stripping a person of their name and identity, undermines this.”

Instead, Petrosam proposes HR managers should encourage their team to broaden their horizons and take the time to learn the correct pronunciation. She also suggests ignoring university backgrounds when assessing a portfolio. “There’s a stigma around universities with the presumption that the better the university, the better the creative, but that’s not true. I’ve worked with so many designers who got into the industry straight out of school,” she explains.

Petrosam notes one of the barriers and disincentives for BAME creatives in applying for more senior roles is the lack of corporate awareness in cultural differences. “There’s no support at that level” she observes. As a solution, HR could develop networks of mentors for the more senior management level roles. We Are Stripes offers a mentorship programme for entry level and mid to executive level talent with training and coaching. 80% of their mentors are from ethnically diverse backgrounds covering all creative sectors and “we match our mentors to mentee by hand”.

“There is no silver bullet or blanket solution that will change and deal with what is a very complex and multilayered issue.” Petrosam concludes. “Paired with our insights we can actually look to develop bespoke solutions and change the individual company cultures and shift the mindsets.”

Cramer outlines her vision for Spring Studios: “We are humans writing, designing and creating for other humans. Our voices are not defined by our privilege but by our experience,” she says. “Represent all of those experiences and we represent our clients to their customers. Isn’t that something all levels and departments of our business can get behind?”


Manifesto

1. Blind hiring. This means not just removing names to avoid unconscious bias, but also taking away details like universities, which come charged with associations.

2. Creating networks and mentorships for BAME employees in the workplace as an incentive for them to apply. Lack of support in roles is often listed as a barrier to entry.

3. Realising there’s no silver bullet. Until the organisations in question take the steps to change their overall culture, it's futile looking for a quick fix. The solution is working closely with firms like We Are Stripes and Creative Access.


Yasmin Jones-Henry is the founder of @workinfashion.me, an online platform for ethical lifestyle brands and the editor of The Collective an annual publication and directory focused on sustainable fashion, impact investment and social enterprise. She is also a journalist for The Financial Times and the Guardian.