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How can practices recruit inclusively for a more diverse team?

Is your practice a ‘monoculture’? Do you recruit in your own image? Learn how to take positive action on equity, diversity and inclusion by rethinking how you hire.

If architecture is to become a more diverse profession, the approach to recruitment that a practice takes is crucial. It could be that your recruitment processes are filtering out talent from underrepresented groups without the practice being aware of it. Positive action on equality, diversity and inclusion means rethinking how you hire.

“All recruitment should be about attracting the best person for the job,” states Mimie Wallace, Managing Director at Tisam HR. “But if you are not opening that opportunity out to everyone fairly, then you are not doing that: inclusive recruitment is about finding ways to ensure the widest and fairest pool of opportunity.”

Pooja Agrawal, Co-founder of Public Practice, believes that practices still have a very long way to go. In a recent RIBA Radio discussion, she commented that the recruitment approach of far too many practices could be summed up as “who you know and which university you went to”.

A recruitment mindset that favours a particular architecture school or design aesthetic immediately puts up a huge barrier to entry. There is a huge amount of bias built into that, Agrawal argues. This is monocultural: the opposite of diversity.

Mimie Wallace cautions us against the idea of ‘person fit’.

“Person fit is a problematic concept because it can lead to unconscious bias and discriminatory practice,” she warns. “You are implying that the best successful candidate should possess the same culture as everyone already there, which often comes from your background. You’re already fitting people into a stencil instead of opening up to the richness of talent out there.”

Her fundamental advice is to question all your presumptions. Ask yourself what appeals to you in a CV and portfolio and interrogate why that is. Are there biases and prejudices that underlie what you consider to be good?

Public Practice, which selects and places talented built environment professionals in local authority teams, actively undertakes ‘positive action’ (as distinct from positive discrimination) in its recruitment.

Its process begins with a simple online application, which asks a series of questions to understand applicants’ attitudes, understanding and values in the context of Public Practice’s own mission. Their answers are scored in a scrupulously ‘blind’ fashion: different people score the answers in a randomised order so that no bias can accrue from any perceived pattern in a candidate’s answers.

Making recruitment processes more inclusive is a challenge and cannot be accomplished overnight. But it starts by questioning the status quo: interrogating all assumptions the practice might have about an ideal candidate, or 'what good looks like'.

When it comes to the interview stage, candidates are asked in advance if they have any accessibility needs. Agrawal states that no part of the process should be about trying to catch people out. Quite the opposite: it should be about understanding that people have different strengths and skills; and providing an equity of opportunity to show them.

Prior to these stages, practices should consider inclusivity in where they are advertising. Are there opportunities to widen the diversity of applicants by advertising in different places? If you always advertise on the same job boards, you are putting a filter on who sees your ads even before you have started.

Wallace suggests that practices could share a job advertisement with some of the many networks out there who promote inclusivity in architecture, and there is nothing wrong with inviting a potential candidate to apply for a role. Social media is very helpful here: she points out that LinkedIn is a great resource for keeping up to date on the conversations that are happening surrounding architecture and inclusivity. She urges practices to think of recruitment as an ongoing process; not something that is only considered when there is a vacancy to fill.

One simple expedient is to run the wording of a job advertisement through one of many free gender bias detection websites. These will highlight words that make the description of a role sound inordinately ‘masculine’, helping you to keep the wording neutral.

“And do not be afraid to state that you are encouraging people from underrepresented backgrounds to apply,” she concludes. “Let people know what you are trying to achieve.”

A universal recommendation is that training and guidance from a consultant is invaluable. If a practice is unsure about its processes and any bias underlining them, bringing in a third party is the logical step.

Tacita Small, Managing Director of The Small HR Company (TSHRC) points out that addressing inclusive recruitment is ultimately a holistic matter: it should take into account the business' ethos, values, how it treats its staff and how it presents itself.

A practice's website is its public face. She points out that a practice is not sending out the most welcoming of signals if its 'who we are' or 'people' page only features the founders and senior management, or presents staff in order of seniority. Based on the ARB's current data on diversity in architecture, such top-down presentation is likely to present a picture that the practice is largely white and male (which may or may not be accurate).

Like Wallace, Small suggests that practices be clear about their intentions. Stating a company's ethos or values on its homepage - beyond those of design quality and business practice - sends out a message that a practice is welcoming and encouraging of diversity.

"You are always hiring," she states, "even if you are not currently advertising a position."

Thanks to Pooja Agrawal, Co-founder, Public Practice; Mimie Wallace, Managing Director, Tisam HR; and Tacita Small, Managing Director, TSHRC.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Inclusive environments.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

First published Thursday 12 May 2022

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