Racial and ethnic prejudice is holding us back

There are many talented people out there in BAME communities looking for work but being overlooked

What do you call a can opener that is not being used? A can’t opener. Not being given the opportunity to do something is not the same as not being able to do something.

I recently spent a couple of hours with a friend who has been out of work for six months. Prior to being made redundant he held reasonably complex project management roles, but despite his wealth of experience he has faced many rejections and has started to doubt himself. Feedback has ranged from non-existent to contradictory advice on what he needs to do differently so is of limited value.

He has signed up with and had encouraging meetings with recruitment agencies only to be followed by radio silence. The vacuum and desperation have driven him to apply for roles he is over-qualified for.

I am left wondering how much of this struggle is the current employment climate and how much is down to his name. My friend, like me, is British Pakistani. CIPD research confirms that BAME individuals have the cards stacked against them throughout their careers so the question has to be asked. Is the market that dry or is my friend disadvantaged from the word go?

I have faced similar experiences. One Skype interview with a CEO of a charitable organisation was terminated after only 10 minutes. What could he have really deciphered after just 10 minutes? In any case he went on to appoint a non-BAME individual.

More recently for another role feedback was given that because I was a consultant the client preferred to opt for someone in-post as an HR director. This feedback came after having been put through three stages of the recruitment process. It was known from my application from the offset I was a consultant, so if that was a criteria it should have been stated from the beginning rather than wasting everyone’s time.

On many occasions after making it to the final two or three the feedback I have received, when given, is that the other applicants have more breadth of experience having worked in different sectors. It sounds plausible but is also convenient. Anyone in HR knows it is a transferable skill from sector to sector. In any case in the VUCA world we all live in no role is consistently the same and what might have worked in one organisation will not necessarily work in another.

I do wonder if agencies are putting me forward just to say they have ‘offered’ a diverse talent pool but when meeting with the client to finalise who to progress there is an unsaid agreement disadvantaging people of colour or difference.

We often hear about the ongoing war on talent and yet there are many talented people out there in BAME communities looking for work but being overlooked. Unemployed is not the same as unemployable. HR has a duty to redress the balance to make the can-opener work.

Henry Ford stated: “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right.” If BAME communities start to believe the door to the world of work is closed to them then ultimately it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Too many BAME applicants will eventually take themselves out of the market believing that the door of opportunity will not open for them. As for me? I haven’t failed; I just haven't succeeded… yet. There is a difference. Each disappointment just brings me one step closer to the right role.

Shakil Butt is founder of consultancy HR Hero for Hire, and former HR and OD director at Islamic Relief Worldwide