On Job Requirements, Equal Opportunities and Positive Discrimination

I once worked in an IT company that had a ‘Data Preparation’ department. Every single member of the team (I seem to recall there were about 15 of them) were women. I asked one of the bosses about this once, regarding the equality issues, and he said that only one man had ever applied for a job in that team. Well it was one or none anyway. These days, I sense that answer would not have been enough. Today, I suspect that he would have had to prove that any job adverts for roles in that team would have been ‘equally accessible’ to men and women, that special efforts had been made to ensure men had felt able to apply for the role. What is the equality world coming to?

I’ve been following the letters pages in Computing magazine recently, where there have been quite a number of letters from people looking for work. Here’s an approximate sequence over a few months:

  • Older people with lots of experience in the industry struggling to find work;
  • Older people with lots of experience in the industry moving to other job types, having finally given up on the idea of another job in IT;
  • “It’s not just men struggling to find work”. A woman finds the IT industry a sexist place to work, and struggles to find work;
  • A woman not finding the IT industry sexist, and doing great in the profession thank you;
  • Recent graduates (in one specific case, who happened to also mention that he was disabled) struggling to find work but did not have any experience thus no job offers;
  • Suggestions from a reader that volunteering in the IT sector for a charity may help said graduate in getting experience;
  • …and so on.

The broad pattern is this; If someone is out of work and looking for work, it feels like the industry is somehow ‘against them’. And I have to admit, I’ve felt that quite a few times in the last months. Did I mention that I am currently not employed?

Job Requirements

When I’ve been looking at job requirements in the last few months, I have noticed an apparent trend towards ridiculously stringent and long lists of requirements. We’re talking about having skills in related but competing toolsets; like having Sybase and Oracle DBA skills. I’m sure that there are people out there with that mix, but I would expect that they are the extreme minority:

Speculative intersection of those with Sybase DBA skills and those with Oracle DBA skills

Perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about, and in the last few years I’ve not noticed that Oracle and Sybase have got together and encouraged their users to buy the competing product. OK. Maybe not.

So, perhaps lots more companies have suddenly found themselves with both Sybase and Oracle databases – I suppose it only takes one vital software tool to only be available on one platform for something like this to happen… but again not a massive number of companies will be big enough to afford this, let alone train or employ their staff to manage both systems. I used to work for a software house and despite having around 100 staff, I really doubt that they would have wanted to take on Sybase as well as Oracle, due to the overhead of having another DBA, licensing costs etc.

The DBA thing was just an example, and could equally apply to a number of job adverts I’ve seen which appear to require high levels of skill in competing technologies, or just a magical combination of apparently arbitrary skills.

I spoke to a friend of mine about this and his response was that there are a lot of technologies in use out there… that they didn’t really expect to get all of their ‘wish list’, but why not ask for it? I see his point, but if that is true, then why not put some of those requirements into ‘nice to have’ lists? Of course, some companies do this, but their requirements lists are still seemingly endless! And why not include things like:

  • Must be able to use Word / Office / Outlook / Notes;
  • Our purchasing procedures are so obscure and protracted, you will need to patience of a saint;
  • …and so on.

I’ve also kept an eye out for ‘Junior’ roles. These are in the extreme minority, as it seems everyone wants to take on experience, not a training liability (and to some extent, who can blame them). I did finally find a ‘Junior DBA’ role advertised that required the applicant to have ‘2 years experience with Oracle 9 and 10…’. Well, in my book, 2 years of experience as a DBA means you are no longer a Junior… (unless you’re really bad), and having a requirement of Oracle 9 and 10 (10 being the latest version of the DB, and as far as I know not installed with a massive percentage of users), that really would be the icing on the cake if they find someone!

I struggled to find a rationale for these seemingly excessive requirements for job applications. But now I think I might have the answer. We’ve just got to take some other detours before we get there. But let’s go back to Positive Discrimination for a minute.

Anti Discrimination and Positive Discrimination

Before we get into this any deeper, let me just say that I do believe in equal opportunities. But I am sceptical of the many mechanisms employers are using to get there.

Let’s take a look at some quotes from various job adverts and applications that I have seen recently. Some of them I regret are not quotes I noted at the time, but the essence will be there:

The Council has a no smoking policy and is working towards being an equal opportunities employer.

What does that mean? (It’s my emphasis on working towards). Shouldn’t they be forced to list the areas in which they are not equal ops? Is it even legal to say that? Still, good that they’ve got their No Smoking policy in there; that’s easier and cheaper to do than all that other complicated stuff.

We are committed to equal opportunities. We positively encourage applications from all areas of the community, regardless of gender, race, age, disability or sexual orientation.

Well, I guess that’s better but surely they could have stopped after the first sentence. Indeed, it’s a bit risky to specify the list in the second sentence because What if they missed something out? Actually, they did; Marital Status, Religion or Belief, and membership or otherwise of a Trade Union. Perhaps instead they should have put:

We are committed to equal opportunities. No, we’re really really really committed to equal opportunities!

OK, back to serious:

We are an equal opportunities employer. Please be sure not to include your date of birth on any information you send us, to help us enforce this policy.

Right. We’re equal opportunities as long as we don’t have the information. If you give us that information, of course we can’t help but use it in our assessment of you! Why not also ask to exlude all dates from CV’s, only include durations of employment etc. And don’t give a first name because that might give away your gender… and so on.

Conversely, some companies now insist on you providing your date of birth (and in one case, your age range as well in case they couldn’t work it out for themselves) just to prove that they’ve attracted applications from different age groups.

And I have to say I feel very uncomfortable with statements like this (for a senior management role, not in IT):

Applications from Asian communities, women and people with disabilities are particularly encouraged, as they are currently under-represented at this level within the organisation.

I don’t doubt that they hope to ‘balance the equal-opportunities books’, but what do they really expect to achieve? This statement may encourage an application from a qualified member of a minority group in employment elsewhere… perhaps ultimately depriving their old employer of a minority group at senior level (so now another company has an equal-opportunities imbalance). But surely, individuals from minority groups with the appropriate skills do not need this sort of encouragement to apply for a job that’s suitable for them? What am I missing?

I must admit that I used to feel that the most appropriate ‘Equal Opportunities’ statement went something like:

We only discriminate on the grounds of ability to do the job.

…or words to that effect.

And for a Big Surprise…

I was most surprised to encounter, during one job application, the following statement:

XXXXXXX recognises the value and input of employees with disabilities and commits to guarantee an interview for disabled applicants who meet the minimum criteria for any post. If you wish to apply through the guaranteed interview scheme, please indicate below, describing the nature of your disability and any assistance that you may require to attend for interview or to take up the job applied for, e.g. sign language interpreter, induction loop, wheelchair access.

The intention is laudable. Well done employer! But surely, the statement “commits to guarantee an interview… who meet the minimum criteria” implies two things:

  1. If we get more qualified applicants than we can possibly interview, the disabled person who requests this on the application will gain an advantage over a similarly skilled, but able-bodied applicant…
  2. …whilst at the same time not committing to anything (“who meet the minimum criteria”). Surely, if the employer needs to be specifically informed of a need for wheelchair access, we can infer that not all of their place of work is accessible…

I just can’t help but feeling:

  1. Slightly alienated (because I have excluded from this ‘special offer’)… just like when I was a kid and my Mum bought my sisters ice cream, but not me ‘because I’d been bad’… I consider myself lucky to be able-bodied etc, but the exclusion from a guarantee like this hurts! “It could be yoooouuuuu. Oh sorry actually, no, it can’t be YOU.”;
  2. …while conversely feeling that although the offer is intended to help the disabled, it is probably quite a hollow one. I have interviewed applicants for jobs in the past, and if I were to interview two equally qualified people, but one of them could only speak french – and although they’d brought along an interpreter so the interviewer went ok… it would be difficult to consider the french speaker for the role.

So perhaps in fairness, this is exactly why public bodies in the UK need to have definitive policies like this.

And Back to those Extreme Job Requirements

So I would suggest that we can now consider some of the reasons for job requirements that appear to be lengthier than necessary and sometimes obscurely so. The job specification is the ultimate get-out clause. As long as the business has the funding for just one “Sybase DBA with Oracle PL/SQL on Unix and Windows Server, SQL Server and Shell scripting with excellent MQ Series and .Net skills. Knowledge of carpentry advantageous. Investment Banking experience prerequisite”, then all or the majority of their applicants will be ‘sub-standard’ and the employer will always be able to refuse any candidate ‘because they did not match the job specification’. In the end, they ‘make do’ by picking the candidate they like or want covering themselves with the “Invulnerable Shield of the Job Specification”.

Again, it is worth noting here that I am not suggesting that companies with perverse job specifications are doing this to avoid employing minorities. They are probably not even coming out with perverse job specs consciously at all. But an unattainable job specification pretty-much provides them the ultimate defence.

I think that there is more to say on issues related to this topic… I’ll leave that for tomorrow.

One thought on “On Job Requirements, Equal Opportunities and Positive Discrimination

  1. I have been on the prowl checking out the job market 6 months ahead of time and realize I might need every day. Even when you tell employeers that you have personnel time you will commit to learning the system they are on, there are still no takers. I’m not the smartest man in the world but this means for them cost-free training.

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