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Ben Reese

Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

Communications and Employer Engagement Officer

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Building empathy into recruitment practices to attract young people

How inclusive is your hiring process?

The potential for an extra 620,000 young people to be unemployed by the end of the year has meant that national conversations have rightly focused on job creation. With large numbers of businesses and organisations making cuts and chiefly concerned with survival, we understand that employers are not always in a position to talk about how to recruit.

Small measures down the line in the recruitment process can make a big difference as to how you’re seen by candidates. 

As and when individual business needs allow, however, the Build Back Better ethos presents an opportunity to check-in with recruitment methodologies – to ensure that they are not inadvertently reinforcing inequalities.

In our experience of leading youth employment programmes in Greater Manchester since 2013, we’ve seen that recruitment processes and materials are beset with ambiguous language, and have long posed a barrier to young people.

Employers have varied capacity, but everyone can do something

Some young people need longer-term one-to-one specialist employability support that addresses underlying social and emotional barriers to employment. Others need a guiding hand to identify and apply for opportunities.

We understand that not every employer has the capacity, resource or network to offer confidence-building experiences or deliver specially tailored recruitment pathways, by working with the likes of the Prince’s Trust and Movement to Work, for example.

All employers, however, regardless of the size (or indeed the existence) of CSR budget can implement simple changes to render their opportunities more accessible to a wider talent pool.

Say what you mean

We’ve all seen them – job adverts littered with more jargon than a Haynes manual. Take this example from an advert for an administration assistant:

“You will maintain purchase orders in the critical path in the relevant system”.

Many entry-level job descriptions are crammed full of this technobabble – gobbledygook that young people with limited or no experience of the workplace can find alienating.

In a jobs market about to be flooded by increasing numbers of unemployed graduates, there will be the temptation to window dress job adverts and obfuscate role requirements with layers of flowery language. With the benefit of an English degree you might be able to unpick it all, or you might just give up. Young people we support tell us they often won’t start an application because they do not understand what is being asked of them.

Speaking to new hires about their recruitment experience can help to diversify your talent pool and employ a workforce that is representative of where you do business.

I imagine many reading this will have benefitted from family advice with job applications at some point; hours of advice over the years to explain ‘when they ask you that, they actually mean this’. Not every young person can fall back on years of playing the job hunting game and developing an implicit understanding of the coded language of recruitment. Employers should aim to make sure job descriptions are comprehensible and reflect the nature of the job.

That brings us to that most clichéd of phrases: ‘experience is preferred but not essential’. If it is not essential why mention experience? Pause and consider the likelihood of finding a carbon copy replacement of the staff member who has just left. The one who’d had the time to learn the role and knew the organisation inside out. Everyone has to start somewhere. We’ve all had a first job.

A common frustration for young people applying for jobs is the feeling of needing to be exceptional. Words like ‘passionate’ and ‘dynamic’ don’t help in this regard. I’ve enjoyed most of my jobs, but have I been passionate about all of them? Probably not. Has it stopped me working very hard, to a level that satisfies my employers and myself? No.

Application materials should make an applicant feel welcome. Instead of asking for ‘great product knowledge’, explain how you will help them acquire this. Talk about how a desire to learn – not a finished article – is what you’re after.

Small measures down the line in the recruitment process can make a big difference as to how you’re seen by candidates. Providing pictorial examples of what applicants could wear at interview removes any unnecessary worrying. Dropping applicants a text the day before an interview, to explain how you’re looking forward to seeing them and where exactly to report to, can make all the difference to helping someone feel relaxed and able to perform at their best.

About those values

Recruiting a candidate because their values match yours has particular applicability with young applicants who do not have a wealth of (or any) work experience. Despite this, when asking someone to evidence their values, employers can hamstring young people.

It can help if the wording of a value does not make young people feel inadequate. Take the value of ‘courage’ for example. A focus group of young people we worked with said their peers might feel that they’ve never been courageous in the past. If your interpretation of the word ‘courage’ conjures images of standing up against impossible odds or charging into a burning building, you will likely feel you’ve not had the chance to act courageously.

A simple re-wording of ‘courage’ to, ‘we have a go at new things’, allows more room for young people to cite a wider range of reference points that could include, travelling somewhere new on their own, trying a new cuisine, choosing to join a new club, or leaving a job that they don’t like and trying to find a new one.

It is equally important in young people’s eyes that examples like these are provided, so that they know employers do not need work-based examples.

Ask around

Speak to other businesses. Take advantage of networking events and find out how they’re recruiting young people. We’ve encountered some innovative approaches to making recruitment more inclusive: for example, asking young people to bring along a cherished item to talk about at the start of an interview, or having young people who are in the advertised role write the job description and sit on interview panels.

We previously worked with Business in the Community (BITC) to help young people ‘mystery shop’ employers job adverts and descriptions. Young people were unfailingly honest in their appraisals and provided perspective.

Speaking to new hires about their recruitment experience can help to diversify your talent pool and employ a workforce that is representative of where you do business. Ask what went well and the elements they’d want to change. Theirs is a perspective not obscured by targets or any internal priorities.

The internet is awash with so much information about accessible recruitment that it can be hard to know where to start with looking for hints and tips. BITC has produced a wealth of resources relating to the recruitment and retention of young people and we have produced a toolkit for employers.

A lot of the hints and tips are not exclusive to those who are long-term unemployed young people – they are simply good recruitment principles irrespective of the candidates’ age. They can help organisations who want to take a more sustainable, long-term approach to providing opportunities to local people and building talent through training, rather than buying it in.

Interested in this topic? Read Diversity and inclusion: it’s time to champion greater social mobility for young talent.

Author Profile Picture
Ben Reese

Communications and Employer Engagement Officer

Read more from Ben Reese

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