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The interview tool that limits discrimination


<b>You cant discriminate on colour, disability or looks in telephone interviews, says Richard Donkin. Why do so few firms use them?</b>

If I could hand out a personal award for great HR management the Donkin perhaps? I think this year it would go to Selfridges. Any company that has staff committed enough to shed their clothes on the shop floor is going to get my vote.

Let me explain. Do you remember all that press coverage a few weeks ago when 600 people took off their clothes in Selfridgess Oxford Street store to be photographed on the escalators by the installation artist Spencer Tunick? Well, according to human resources director, Judith Waddell, a third of those people were the companys staff.

Selfridges has been transformed in the past few years from a staid old department store dying on its feet to a fun place to shop that puts all the other top stores, with the possible exception of Libertys, in the shade. Part of this was down to the inventiveness of Vittorio Radice, the

inspirational chief executive, now at Marks & Spencer, who led the transformation. But credit should also go to the changes initiated by the human resources team under Waddell. The department has moved out of the dull grey offices it occupied in the attic to a more central position where it sells itself as a vital service for the rest of the business.

One of the most interesting HR changes is its approach to recruitment. Nearly all job applications to Selfridges these days are made over the internet. The next stage for promising applicants is a telephone interview. The

telephone interview, says Waddell, is proving so

successful in screening applicants that one in two

people who go on to a face-to-face interview, get a job.

Why dont other companies make greater use of telephone interviews? At the initial screening stage they offer several advantages over face-to-face interviews, both to employers and candidates. First, they are cheap. Second, there is no chance of discrimination on grounds of looks, disability or skin colour. Third, the interviewee is unprepared so you are speaking to the real person. Last, telephone manner betrays much about a persons personality. People who are confident on the telephone are likely to be as confident when they speak to customers.

The telephone is an excellent tool for avoiding

discrimination. Surely all employers would want to do that, wouldnt they? Apparently not. The telephone approach might not be suitable, for example, for Fitness First, the health club chain, whose human resources director, Lisa Somerville, sent an emailed memo recently to regional managers asking them to consider the impact of having larger employees.

I found this unbelievable when I read about it. The company, it seems, was worried about having too many fatties on its staff. Bad for business and all that, although one of its explanations for the policy was the added cost of uniforms over size 16.

Somerville said in the email that she was passing on a concern of the chief executive, Mike Balfour. We are not asking you to have a discriminatory recruitment policy, she told managers, but Mike has asked me to subtly make you aware of the situation. Balfour said afterwards it was a misinterpretation and that Fitness First has never discriminated against anyone on size.

There are two ways for managers to look at this

incident. Some might see some logic in employing slim Jims at a health club. Others might consider that the HR director made a much bigger cock-up because she passed on a policy that was intrinsically bad.

Even if such discrimination is not illegal and there is no doubt that the email was advocating discrimination whatever anyone at the company may say it was

ethically unacceptable. More than that, I would argue that it is bad for business. If Im attending a health club because Im overweight I might find some comfort seeing a fellow fatty on the staff.

If Balfour is genuine in his desire to avoid discrimination, he should take a leaf out of Selfridgess book and start telephoning candidates for a job. Then he wouldnt have to look at them. With luck he might recruit employees as confident as those at the department store who feel so good about their bodies that they will strip off at a moments notice. That said, I didnt see any of Selfridgess management in those photographs. In future I think the boss should go first. Take note, Ms Waddell.


Richard Donkin is employment columnist at the Financial Times