Diversity in recruitment is needed more than ever

Written by Jamie Szymkowiak on 13 February 2017 in Comment

One in Five founder Jamie Szymkowiak on how diversity in the workplace and mature management can reap dividends

Disabled parking bay, by Steve P

Disabled parking bay - credit Steve P

It’s been two years since I left the sphere of construction, property and engineering recruitment for political activism, but next month those worlds collide as I chair an event on Supporting Disabled People in the Workplace

Preparing for the event has provided me the opportunity to reflect on my time as a recruiter and draw comparisons to what I have learned during the last two years of campaigning to improve the representation of disabled people in public life. The link may appear tenuous at first, but bear with me.

When I started my career in recruitment in 2006 it was a boom time in the construction sector. Governments were throwing money at new schools, house builders couldn’t keep up with first-time buyers, and out of town shopping centres and industrial parks were going up at rate of knots. 


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I spent the first month or two focused on speaking to and meeting with candidates; gaining an understanding of the Building Services sector from the experts themselves: “what do you do?” “what type of projects interest you?” and then the killer question (remember, it was boom time and the sector faced a skills shortage) “what would it take for you to consider another job?”

No wonder companies welcome recruiters with a sense of trepidation!

Nonetheless, the next few months were spent “selling” the candidates to clients, meeting as many of them as time allowed: establishing yourself as an expert. It was justification rather than negotiation. “If you don’t want my candidate Mr Client, I will just go to your competitor.” Little thought to the needs of your candidate or client.

Then came the financial crash of 2008.

From a recruiter’s perspective the power shifted to the client. Those construction professionals who remained in secure employment during the following few years were reluctant to change jobs. Recruitment companies scrambled to distinguish themselves from competitors. Companies sought to avoid agency fees at all costs.

As a senior recruiter during this time, it was easy to distinguish between successful colleagues and those who were struggling to generate the fees our employer demanded. It wasn’t necessarily the most time-served recruiter or those who made the most calls or met the most clients. It was the recruiter that was prepared to listen and brave enough to set realistic expectations. In short, it was about customer service.

It was this realisation in early 2011, when the economy was still lagging, that pushed me to move from employee to employer and go in to partnership with Chris Peace at Peace Recruitment. 

The mantra was, and still is, customer service before sales. To both candidates and clients it was an honest and simple message of mutual respect, but arguably the biggest difference was the decisions we made as employers ourselves. 

Tamara Jaberu, Director of Peace Recruitment Trades and Labour, soon joined us and, having all worked for the same global recruitment firm, we tried hard to create an atmosphere where our team felt valued, that their contributions were important with unlimited opportunities to develop. Peace Recruitment provides a competitive salary, a unique bonus structure and generous holidays. All organisations like to think this, don’t they? So what could we, as a new SME, offer?

As our team grew we offered flexible hours, home working and rewarded a strong team performance with big annual company outings to Amsterdam or Paris. Although the Directors had final say, many of the Company’s decisions were made on the shop floor allowing everyone, whether they joined us yesterday or a year ago, to contribute to strategy. Our team was diverse and as employers we were transparent about every aspect of our own development as business owners.

Instead of setting targets, we set minimum requirements. The nuance was intentional and is important. We ensured our team was productive without constantly going on about Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Mature management. 

It’d be disingenuous to say this was all planned out from Day one; however, what it created was a team of empathetic recruiters who appreciated that if you deliver a competent service with honesty, everything else will take care of itself.

“That’s all very nice, Jamie; but where’s the link from recruitment to political activism?” I hear you ask.

Well, it’s all about the process of earning trust and respect.

In the last two years I’ve launched a campaign, One in Five, which has successfully lobbied the government to change legislation and fund projects that will help to remove the barriers disabled people face when participating in politics.

Success didn’t happen overnight, and indeed, other organisations were trying to achieve similar outcomes. Drawing upon the benefits of a consultative approach to recruitment, One in Five is a group of disabled people from across the political spectrum and it was this diversity and a willingness to listen and address concerns that brought success.

We are living in tumultuous times, as Brexit and President Trump heighten economic uncertainties. The recruitment process can be costly with both financial and a non-financial repercussions if you get it wrong.

If I’ve learned anything since 2011, it’s the importance of building and working with a diverse team. It’s not an easy thing to create. I suppose you could leave it to chance. Alternatively, you could make it a priority by putting your faith in a recruiter that is capable of adding genuine value to your business. When you get it right you’ll end up with a happier and more productive team, improved retention and, ironically, a reduced recruitment spend. 

Jamie Szymkowiak is senior parliamentary assistant to Dr Eilidh Whiteford MP and founder of the One in Five campaign

Find out more about improving the diversity of your workforce at Holyrood's forthcoming event.

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