· 2 min read · Features

Case study: Changing the culture in a recruitment agency

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How recruitment firm Nicoll Curtin radically transformed its culture to improve gender diversity

Company: Nicoll Curtin
Sector: Recruitment
Locations: Three (London, Zurich and Singapore)
Number of employees: 60
Number of employees in HR: Two

The challenge

As a specialist IT recruitment agency Nicoll Curtin is well aware of the gender balance challenge facing the industry it recruits for. But to encourage its clients to prioritise gender diversity, it first had to tackle its own cultural issues.

“When I joined the business it was very male and competitive – a stereotypical recruitment company,” recalls HR adviser Ashleigh Clowes. “If you weren’t involved in the pub you weren’t involved in the office. For people who didn’t fit, like me, you were on the periphery of the business.”

This culture was having an impact on performance. “We had a couple of years where performance was flat, and we weren’t retaining our potential female leaders,” says group CEO James Johnson. “They were leaving after we identified them. It was clear that something had to change.”

The method

Nicoll Curtin set itself the ambitious target of having 30% female senior leadership by 2018. “Setting the target made it clear it was a high priority,” says Clowes. However, she adds the target was not without its detractors; with some women saying they didn’t want to be promoted on the basis of their gender. “We had to do a lot of work on communication, making it clear that it was still about promoting the best people and removing the barriers that were driving talented women out the door."

“We tied it to being the best, and needing the best people,” Johnson expands. “Recruitment is all about performance, to lose anyone good because of something [like gender] doesn’t make any sense.” To ensure “the best people” were being promoted, behavioural competencies were introduced so that progression in the organisation was about more than simply making lots of money.

Other practicable steps included introducing training for managers around “what is and isn’t acceptable”, as well as clearer policies around flexible working and enhancing the firm’s maternity policy. The company also cut the budget available for alcohol at socials, which “transformed the social calendar”, says Clowes. “It made a massive difference from quite a small change.” “We encouraged people to do different things,” adds Johnson.

The result

Nicoll Curtin has beaten its original target considerably – reaching 42% female leadership by the start of 2016 – and performance has also improved. But the cultural shift hasn’t been easy for everyone. “You need a commitment from the top, and a significant number of senior management did leave,” reveals Johnson. “As leaders we need to be clear what we stand for, and what we do and don’t accept. You have to have values and standards.”

“If there are people who don’t buy into it it’s worth the risk of them leaving, otherwise you’ll lose the people with the values you do want,” agrees Clowes.

Now the firm is looking beyond gender diversity. It has 33% BAME employees and 77% white British, which Clowes says “could be better”. She also plans to look at sexual orientation and age diversity.

And as a knock-on effect of its own work Nicoll Curtin can now spread the diversity message among its clients. “We need to do more externally,” says Johnson. “Our guys can’t effectively sell this concept to clients unless they truly believe it. Next it’s about taking that message externally with more credibility. As recruiters we are in a powerful position to influence.”