Wanting to ‘hire fewer white men’ not discrimination, tribunal finds

A prospective HR lead who was told in a job interview that the company wanted to hire “fewer white men” has lost a race and discrimination suit at the employment tribunal.

Chris Palmer brought a claim against financial services company AIMS Markets after the company turned down his job application, saying that AIMS discriminated against him on both gender and race grounds.

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Michael Jones, managing director at the firm, had talked at a preliminary interview about the need for the company – a startup set for rapid expansion – to hire diversely, phrasing it as a desire to hire “fewer white men.”

The tribunal panel, however, said it is expected for employers to discuss diverse recruitment with its potential head of HR.

It said: “An aim to have an organisation less dominated by white men, in areas where traditionally that is the dominant profile, does not mean that there is an intention to achieve that objective by discriminating in recruitment against white men.”

The panel found it “incredible” that Jones would have openly declared his intention to discriminate against Palmer during the interview, and noted that Jones put Palmer through to the next round of interviews.

Following the second round, Palmer was told that his application would not be taken further.

He then emailed AIMS, alleging that it had discriminated against him on account of his sex – key to this belief, the tribunal heard, was his interpretation of Jones’ remark about wanting to hire fewer white men.

The interviewers’ notes revealed, however, that the recruiting team’s doubts stemmed from a perceived “arrogance” from Palmer, and doubts over whether he would be willing to handle “nuts and bolts” issues for the small firm.

When asked for an expected salary, Palmer likewise suggested £100,000, a number that witnesses confirmed visibly surprised Jones.

The role was eventually filled by another candidate at £78,000.

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at employment law consultancy Peninsula, said that while diversity should be an important focus for organisations, employers should be careful with their wording.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “As this case shows it can be a sensitive and contentious area. Employers need to ensure that any action or comments made do not open them up to discrimination claims.

“But when an organisation is disproportionately under-represented, it is possible to take positive action to address this in recruitment. The key here is that it must be proportionate.

“While in this case the employment tribunal found that there was no discrimination because of either sex or race, it does illustrate that employers need to pay close attention to their recruitment processes.”

Alexandra Mizzi, legal director at law firm Howard Kennedy, also advised caution.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “Although the decision went against the claimant in this case, it highlights the need for care when discussing a business' diversity agenda, particularly in the context of a recruitment process.  

“Rather than implying the use of quotas, businesses should emphasise the need to attract diverse candidates and address the needs of underrepresented groups based on data. 

“Nuance is crucial in this area and blunt statements about hiring "fewer white men" create litigation and reputational risk.”