How the recruitment industry plays the race card

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Lisa Camille Robinson

According to a recent French-American study, a very compelling reason exists for ditching evaluations: they discriminate ...

According to a recent French-American study, a very compelling reason exists for ditching evaluations: they discriminate against women. Photo: Stocksy

 "Her last name is too Asian. Don't send her cv to that company."

This was the kind of comment that I heard explicitly and implicitly on many occasions, during my stint as a recruitment consultant for a national recruitment company.

I had just left the warmth and beaches of Jamaica, to start a new life in Canberra. Canberra was not my first choice, but an obligation since the ACT had sponsored my skilled permanent residency visa.

Lisa Camille Robinson

Lisa Camille Robinson Photo: Supplied

Recruitment was not a first choice either, since my background was in media and film. But after failing to find employment in my field, I opened up my options and accepted the first offer that offered some financial stability.

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As a black woman who'd just emerged from a painful period of job-hunting myself, that comment stung on many levels.

Firstly, I imagined that it might have been directed towards me when I was doing the rounds of seeing recruiters earlier. In the month after my arrival in Australia, I had seen twenty recruiters and not a single interview had eventuated, despite my bachelors, master degree and five years experience as a media consultant.

"Don't submit her for that job…She is black / has an accent / has dreadlocks and they won't go for that," I could now imagine my consultants saying. I now knew that recruiters had KPIs for interviewing a set number of candidates each week. But they made their money from having their candidate selected for the job and it was a highly competitive environment. In the ACT, with a comparatively small population of 350,000, there are over 50 recruitment agencies.

I was also surprised that in a large recruitment company like the one I found myself in, the staff was not more alert to racial discrimination. Shouldn't that kind of attitude be discouraged, especially in environments where dealing with issues of workplace equality is a core aspect of the business?

In my induction training, there was a section on workplace discrimination but it was a speck on the largely sales terrain of the training.

It also stung because it caused me to reflect on how I had been subconciously treating race as a factor in my candidate selection process in my role. I was disappointed to admit that, instead of valiantly putting forward candidates for roles purely based on skills, I began to notice that I too sometimes had refrained from putting forward candidates based on the typification of their ethnic names.

But was the bigger issue the fact that some companies and government departments were in fact mostly Caucasian, conservative and truly had a preference for those candidates or was it that as recruiters we observed a Caucasian and conservative environment and assumed that this dictated the kind of candidates they wanted?

Of course, no manager ever blatantly said, "We only want to see resumes of true blue Australians." So much of it comes down to unconscious bias. 

And it's in that grey area that makes it so hard to identify the play of the race card in recruitment. Comments about what companies really want are usually made off the record. 

Like poker players, recruiters would then stealthily select the cards that will give them the best chance of winning.

What's at stake? Just like in a poker game, money and lots of it: high commissions that are the necessary fat on bony base salaries.

That's not to say that discriminatory practices are the standard.

There were many ethnically diverse candidates whom I believed in whole-heartedly and championed their causes: putting them forward repeatedly and sending their CV unsolicited to departments. It was particularly when I placed those candidates that I got the sense of fulfillment I was seeking. The gratitude, and the sense of having really done something worthwhile would put me on an absolute high.

But the 'race factor' isn't thing only thing that plays on our minds .

There's also the desire of wanting to get it right, please your manager, get the commission, make the client happy, give the candidate a good experience, be true to your own integrity, and so on. They all set marks on the playing field of recruitment.

But it is up to the each recruiter to decide which card they play and how they play the game. So there might not be any broad strokes with which to brush the industry, but an awareness of the state of play can help contextualise individual experiences.