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Inclusive recruitment without positive discrimination

Inclusive recruitment without positive discrimination

It can happen to any of us: you’re pushing for inclusive recruitment, and you’re trying to give disadvantaged candidates a platform, but you end up going too far. Positive discrimination, while seemingly innocent, can be just as damaging to DEI.

What is positive discrimination?

Positive discrimination might not seem like much of a big deal. After all, it’s aimed at making the world more equitable. Surely it can’t be a problem?

Positive discrimination might have the right aim, but it is still unfair and even illegal in some cases. Let’s start by being clear about what positive discrimination is and what it isn’t.

Positive discrimination is when someone receives favorable treatment because they have a protected characteristic. This favorable treatment comes at the expense of other groups.

The difference between positive discrimination and positive action

Positive discrimination is different from positive action. Positive action is when a company takes steps to improve the diversity of its teams without impacting other groups

Whether something is positive discrimination or positive action can sometimes seem like a grey area, so let’s look at some examples.

What happensWhat is it?
You are hiring for a role that requires degree-level training. You have three male candidates who have degrees and one female candidate who does not. You hire a female candidate to improve your gender diversity metrics.This is positive discrimination because you are hiring a less qualified candidate over a more qualified one solely because of their protected characteristic.
You are hiring for a role that requires at least two years of experience. You are down to the final three candidates, all of whom fulfil this requirement. Two are neurotypical, and one is neurodiverse. With no other significant differences between the candidates, you hire the neurodiverse candidateAllowing protected characteristics to be considered when choosing between equally qualified candidates is positive action rather than positive discrimination.
You notice that your workforce has very little ethnic diversity. You decide to host outreach events and partner with organizations aiming to improve ethnic diversity within your industry.This is an example of positive action. Diverse candidates are being encouraged to apply, but you are not placing any obstacles in the path of non-diverse candidates.

Protected characteristics: What are they?

Both positive discrimination and positive action aim to increase diversity across many characteristics. Several characteristics are protected because they are traditionally associated with discrimination. These include:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Race
  • Sexual Orientation

Depending on where you are, there may be other characteristics protected by law.

Talking about positive discrimination and positive action

Most of us feel at least some discomfort when talking about new diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. That’s understandable. Not only are we acknowledging that specific groups have been discriminated against in the past (which doesn’t feel good). We’re also risking getting it wrong.

The risk of saying or doing the wrong thing concerning DEI issues can be intimidating. The threat of legal consequences might be remote. Still, most of us are more concerned about making someone feel uncomfortable or unintentionally making life more difficult for diverse candidates.

As our “Embracing Disability in Early Talent Hiring” conversation highlighted, it’s better to get it wrong (and learn from our mistakes) than it is to avoid trying at all. We need to overcome our discomfort, stop walking on eggshells, and focus on helping the diverse talent that needs us.

The dreaded imposter syndrome 

And while we’re at it, we can expand the conversation to include another thorny subject. Imposter syndrome can be a real problem in the workplace. It leads people to believe they aren’t deserving of their role. 

Have you ever felt like a fraud, like you don’t belong, and that you’re not actually successful — just lucky? That’s imposter syndrome.

And research shows that positive discrimination can amplify the symptoms of imposter syndrome. If employees are already worried that they don’t deserve their position, finding out that they were hired to fill a diversity quota will only make things worse.

The legalities of positive discrimination and positive action

The US 🇺🇸

In the United States, positive discrimination (also known as affirmative action) is legal when used to recruit underrepresented or minority groups. However, that doesn’t mean it is without risk. In some cases, even the person who has benefited from positive discrimination can take legal action against their employer.

Positive action, which doesn’t disadvantage any candidates, typically comes without any associated legal risk.

The UK 🇬🇧

Unlike the US, positive discrimination is illegal in the UK. You can offer assistance to and encourage candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply. You can try to ensure that your hiring practices allow them to demonstrate their skills. But you are not permitted to hire a less qualified candidate purely because of their protected characteristic.

Pressure to positively discriminate

We all want our workplaces to be more diverse. But boardroom pressures to reach specific diversity quotas can be an issue for hiring managers inside organizations rejecting introspection. And worse than that, setting quotas to hire a certain number of people with a particular protected characteristic is illegal in the UK. 

It’s a tough spot to be in, hiring managers want to appease stakeholders, drive diversity and inclusion, and be up-to-date on laws and regulations. It’s understandable how easy it is to slip into positive discrimination. Hiring a candidate because of their protected characteristic can feel like a good way to ease pressure and further progress.

But as we’ve seen, it can lead to a lot of other problems. So let’s move on and discuss how to avoid falling into the trap of positive discrimination.

Achieving truly inclusive recruitment (free from any bias)

Truly inclusive recruitment offers all candidates the chance to shine without the need for positive discrimination. Here are some steps you can take to refine your recruitment processes, increase diversity, and help create a more equitable system.


Understand your baseline

Understanding your starting position is essential for correctly targeting your interventions and evaluating the success of your efforts.

Understanding your baseline isn’t just about how diverse your workforce is (though that is an essential consideration). It’s also about how inclusive your culture is. An inclusive culture is one in which everyone feels respected, and every contribution is valued.

Consider doing an informal (or even a formal) “culture audit” to understand your starting point. A culture audit can include measures such as employee turnover, staff productivity, and worker satisfaction. It can also have more intangible considerations, such as how comfortable employees feel highlighting problems or offering new ideas.

For more thoughts on what makes a culture inclusive, read our blog post.


Set your metrics — and measure them

Understanding your baseline is a great first step, but you also need to think carefully about how you measure your success. How do you know that your recruitment is more inclusive?

Headstart has recently been making some updates, providing new features to help you identify progress and highlight areas for improvement.

Our new Rejection and Withdrawal analytics enable you to identify where talent drops out of your pipeline. We can also let you know who is dropping out and why. 

Knowing where diverse candidates are more likely to withdraw their application allows you to target your interventions effectively. And reduced dropout rates can be a valuable mark of success. Learn more about Rejection and Withdrawal analytics here.


Look beyond the typical success criteria

Headstart’s Semantic Skills assessment can also offer a better way to understand your progress towards inclusive hiring. It can help you find talent with the skills you require without rigid prerequisites. 

Finding top talent that meets (or exceeds) your expectations without asking for extensive experience or specific academic qualifications is a sign that your hiring is moving in the right direction. That’s something we unpack in more detail in our blog post, “The power of offering entry-level jobs with ‘no experience’ required.”

Building an inclusive recruitment strategy is an ongoing process — and we’re committed to creating the tools that drive it. Arrange a Headstart demo now to see them in action.

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