How to embed inclusive recruitment practices in a higher education setting

Hiring practices – from job posting to interview – are key to creating a diverse workforce. Here, Damien Page offers advice on how to drive university-wide inclusivity from the classroom to the community

Damien Page's avatar
Buckinghamshire New University
20 Dec 2023
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All universities claim to be inclusive, the term used liberally throughout marketing, job advertisements and policies, referenced in validation documents and foregrounded in funding applications. Yet too often the practice of inclusion is an add-on, an appendage coming from human resources principles, a sidelining that perpetuates under-representation both internally and within collaborations with communities.

Research is a case in point: according to Higher Education Statistics Agency data, of the 23,515 professors in UK higher education in 2021-22, 30 per cent were female, 910 had declared disabilities, 165 were black. Although as a sector we claim to be inclusive, progress is still painfully slow. At Buckinghamshire New University (BNU), we recognise that inclusive recruitment can help us to do things differently, especially given our diverse student demographic and important role as a civic institution supporting our local communities.

Of course, to recruit a diverse workforce, we need to ensure our recruitment practices are fit for purpose. As a university that believes in fundamental shifts, we’ve introduced a new inclusive recruitment strategy that removes bias from job postings, models an inclusive interview practice and provides specialist onboarding support.

Remove bias from job postings

Gendered wording in job advertisements has been shown to sustain gender inequality, with perceptions of belonging (not skills) helping to mediate the effect of gendered wording on job appeal. When writing job postings, avoid gendered language; use “chair or chairperson” rather than “chairman”, for example, and replace masculine-coded language such as “individual” or “ambitious” with more female-coded words such as “together” or “share”.

Consider removing “desirable” criteria from job descriptions too. Such criteria are too often used as a shadowy source of deciding between candidates; for example, terms such as “essential experience” and “required qualifications” might deter less-qualified women more than less-qualified men from applying. If the requirement is not essential to do the job, should it be listed in job descriptions?

We’ve also stopped asking for current salary and replaced this with expected salary, so we can recruit for potential and not just experience, reducing affinity bias.

Make your institution’s commitment to inclusivity clear as an equal-opportunity, disability-confident and real-living-wage employer, and Race Equality Charter member. As a disability-confident employer, we guarantee to interview all disabled applicants who meet the essential criteria (for example, qualifications, experience and skills) and, where appropriate, incorporate reasonable adjustments into the selection process, such as providing the application form in a different format or giving more time for an assessment or interview. Asking the applicant what reasonable adjustments they need is always best practice.

Reflect on staff demographics regularly at all levels as managers or executives using data dashboards with the support of human resources and equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and strategic-planning colleagues, especially if your workforce is less diverse than your student body. Our positive action statement on each job posting encourages applications from candidates who are likely to be under-represented at BNU, including people from global majority backgrounds, disabled people and LGBTQ+ people, particularly in more senior roles. By example, more than half of applications we received for five new professor posts that closed recently were from these groups.

We’re also a Ban the Box employer, joining Business in the Community’s campaign to remove the box asking for criminal convictions, so we’re judging candidates objectively on their skills and suitability for a role, rather than their past mistakes.

Inclusive interview practices

Inclusive interview practices recognise the need to support all applicants to share their best experiential responses. A way to do this is to send shortlisted candidates the interview questions 72 hours before interview. This can be earlier for neurodiverse candidates, who might find it easier to record a video of themselves answering the questions and submitting this to the panel; the questions should be specific and close-ended enquiries about work experience and avoid queries unrelated to the job.

All interview panels must be diverse, so hiring managers and interview chairs have a responsibility to ensure the panel is a mix of gender, ethnicity, age and other protected characteristics. Consider ensuring that all interviewers complete relevant e-learning and inclusive recruitment training, and make applicants aware of that. All interviews must include questions that assess the candidates’ experience of embedding inclusion within their practice.

Finally, provide the opportunity for alternative formats to interviews such as video submissions.

Specialist support for inclusive recruitment

Inclusive recruitment is, of course, pointless unless the culture, practices and support structures within organisations are equally inclusive and affirming, so our staff are supported by our networks in race equity and disability, the Aurora programme, plus bespoke training and funding for academics to build high-impact centres in their specialist fields.

Perhaps more importantly, new colleagues will transform our approach to inclusion, creating a culture of belonging for our staff and students, building upon our work to decolonise the curriculum and professional practice, de-gender workloads and lead our social impact work within our community.

Inclusion needs to be more than an intention hosted on the intranet; it needs to inform every part of a university, from its culture to its behaviours, from its practices to its estate, from the entry level to the executive. Universities should continue recruiting colleagues who share these beliefs for the betterment of our students and the communities we serve.

Damien Page is deputy vice-chancellor of Buckinghamshire New University.

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