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The Black Lives Matter demonstrations that mobilised hundreds of thousands of people around the world last summer have not gone unnoticed by the business community. What started as a demonstration against brutal police violence against black citizens quickly became a debate about a much broader theme: institutional racism.
“In that sense, 'Black Lives Matter' put the racism debate, and also within our company, high on the agenda again,” says Siham Achahboun, Program Manager Cultural Diversity and Inclusion with the Dutch insurance company Achmea. “We got a lot of response from colleagues who wanted the company to take a clear position in the debate. We could of course have chosen just to put a statement on our website in which we disapprove of racism, but that felt it wouldn´t do justice to what had happened.”
To give employees the opportunity to share their experiences with racism, the company organised four meetings for everyone to attend. They turned out to be a huge success. “The participants came from, from a customer service representative to someone on the board of directors,” says Siham Achahboun. "They were told stories of discrimination that their colleagues had never told before."
The meetings were an eye-opener for many employees who themselves had no experience with racism. “In the Netherlands we tend to think that everyone is treated equally,” says Siham Achahboun. "But that is exactly the problem with institutional racism: even if the intentions are good, it does not mean that the results are always good."
For example, research shows that applicants with a migration background are much less likely to be invited for an interview. Dutch people without a migration background receive, on average, 30% more often a positive response than Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese or Antillean applicants.
To create equal opportunities for everyone, the existing systems and processes within the company must be adapted, Siham Achahboun thinks. That is exactly what Achmea hired her for. These are her most important advice to organisations that also want to attract more multicultural talent.
“When I started working at Achmea, initially as an intern, it was quite a 'white' organisation,” says Siham Achahboun. “There was a will to attract more talent with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but there was no clear approach. You see that happening in other organisations as well: they see the importance, but do not know how to convert their good intentions into policy.”
Siham, who has a degree in social and organisational psychology, used her internship to investigate exactly what went wrong in attracting multicultural talent. “It soon became clear that the problem was with the influx of candidates. We were simply not known to candidates with a migration background as a potential employer. We then went through every step in the recruitment process to see where our blind spots were. The next step was to set up a new strategy based on what we know from scientific research.”
If you want to be known as a potential employer among multicultural candidates, you must first adjust your communication in order to appeal the target group. “For example, for a recent trainee campaign we had made a really cool vlog in which one of our trainees talked about his average working week,” says Siham Achahboun. "In it he also talked about the Friday afternoon drinks to celebrate the end of the week."
“What he didn’t realise was that by putting so much emphasis on the Friday’s drinks he excluded potential candidates who do not drink alcohol, for example Muslim students. That is why we have slightly adjusted the message. Now we emphasise that we do lots fun things after work. The drinks are just one example. It makes the message more inclusive.”
“Another example are vacancy texts in which we often focus on individual success: ¨you are going to make it in our company, you will be our new star. That's good too, because it matches the type of profile we're looking for. But in many non-Western cultures the collective is more important than the individual. That is why we now also emphasise collective values, such as teamwork, to create a better balance.”
When they checked the job adds, they noticed another obstacle to attract talent from cultural or ethnic minority groups: skills were often described as personal qualities. Think of descriptions like a “creative wizard” or “a natural leader”.
Research has shown that candidates with a migration background and women feel uncomfortable with this kind of subjective characterisations. “They are afraid that others will think that the characterization does not apply to them,” explains Siham Achahboun. “I have experienced it myself. I am of Moroccan descent and although I was born in the Netherlands and there is nothing wrong with my Dutch language skills, I will never describe myself as linguistic virtuoso or something like that. Simply because I suspect that people don't expect that from someone with an immigrant background. In social science this phenomenon is called 'stereotype threat'”
There is a simple solution to get around this obstacle: instead of character traits you look for skills. A linguistic virtuoso is, for example, is someone who can express him- or herself well in word and writing. “It makes the job description more objective, because you can measure skills,” Siham Achahboun. "It does mean that recruiters have to dig deeper to find out exactly what skills hiring managers are looking for."
“We know from research that resumes and cover letters are not good indicators of talent or a good match with the organisation,” says Siham Achahboun. “That is why we have reversed the process: instead of recruiters having the work through a bunch of CV´s and cover letters we ask them upfront what information they would like to find in a good resume and motivation. Based on this, we create a questionnaire, so that each candidate will provide us with exactly the same kind of information”
“This makes the process more objective. Subjective information, such as which hockey team you´ve plated in or which university you´ve attended, no longer play a role. We have the same set-up for the job interview. Managers are asked to consider in advance which questions they want to ask. They are asked not to deviate from the questionnaire during the interview. That is difficult, because it feels unnatural to interview candidates that way. But the first results are very promising. We are told by managers that after an interview they can better assess whether a candidate is suitable or not.”
You can put together a diverse team, but how do you ensure that everyone also works well together? “Differences in a team also make the outcomes and the behaviour of your team members more unpredictable,” says Siham Achahboun. "How do you deal with that uncertainty as a manager?"
“For example, as a manager you´ll have to know how to handle cultural dilemmas. So far, we have trained between 300 to 400 managers in dealing with different value systems. The idea is that you don´t just people on specific behaviour, but on the underlying values.”
“The well-known example is someone who, based on his religious beliefs, does not want to shake hands with women. How do you deal with that? You can simply say: in our organisation we all shake hands and that´s the end of it. But you can also first try to find out what is his underlying value system. Doesn't he shake hands with women because he doesn't respect them? Or is it a form of respect for him? In the latter case, you can come up with an alternative greeting together.
For example, maybe he could bow to women, with his hand on his heart? That might be an acceptable solution. By looking this way at cultural differences, you´ll realise things are not always as black and white as they seem at first sight.”