Diversity, equity, and inclusion are hugely important to your business. A diverse workforce with various viewpoints, backgrounds, and life experiences is key to innovation and productivity.

Companies with better diversity generate 19% more revenue through innovation than those with below-average diversity. These companies typically perform better overall.

With stats like this, and the poor state of diversity within UK companies, organisations are right to put significant effort into improving representation within their workforce, especially at leadership levels.

Improving DEI is good for business and good for society, but it also needs to be approached in the right way. Positive discrimination can look like a quick fix for poor diversity, but employers should avoid it at all costs.

We’ll look at what positive discrimination means, why it shouldn’t form a part of your diversity efforts, and what you can do instead.

What is positive discrimination?

When we talk about discrimination in the workplace, we usually mean that someone is treated less favourably because of a characteristic that has nothing to do with their ability to do their job.

Although this could include innocuous qualities, such as shoe size or favourite colour, we usually mean something a little more impactful. In the UK, there are nine ‘protected characteristics’. Companies are not allowed to discriminate based on any of these characteristics.

They are:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

Positive discrimination is still discrimination. The only difference is who benefits. 

In typical discrimination, someone is treated better because they are a member of a more powerful group. In positive discrimination, they are treated better because they are a member of a less powerful group.

The gender pay gap is an example of traditional discrimination. Women were paid less for doing the same job. If we decided to ‘even things out’ by paying women more than men, that would be positive discrimination… and it would still be wrong.

When we think about recruitment, positive discrimination would mean selecting a candidate based (solely or entirely) on them having a protected characteristic. This ignores their individuality, their abilities, skills, and experience.

Even when positive discrimination comes from a desire for fairness or justice, it harms all of us. 

Before we become too worried about whether our DEI initiatives might accidentally fall into positive discrimination, let’s clarify the difference between positive discrimination and positive action.

While positive discrimination is wrong, positive action is both legal and empowering.

Positive action is anything you do to help people who might otherwise be the targets of discrimination to overcome any barriers they face in getting equal treatment.

For example, you might be aware that women are less likely to apply for a job without fulfilling all of the criteria listed in the job advert. You could try to increase the number of women applying by only listing essential criteria.

This would not count as positive discrimination because it is trying to create a more level playing field for everyone.

Positive discrimination means treating someone better than others based on a protected characteristic. Positive action means making sure that everyone has the same opportunity to succeed.

Why should you avoid positive discrimination?

Positive discrimination typically comes from a good place. You recognise the unfairness inherent in the world and want to take steps to address it. It also seems like a fast and effective tool to help improve your DEI efforts and achieve the diverse teams you want and need.

Unfortunately, positive discrimination is usually harmful to your DEI efforts and to the very individuals you are trying to raise up. Importantly, it’s also illegal under UK law.

The protected characteristics we listed above are deliberately broad, specifically to avoid positive discrimination.

For example, the protected characteristic is “race”, not “being an ethnic minority”. Ethnic minorities and white people can go to a tribunal under the Equality Act 2010 for racial discrimination — and they have.

Companies engaging in positive discrimination, whether in their hiring practices or any other part of their business, are putting themselves at risk of being taken to a tribunal. Wanting to improve your DEI efforts is no excuse under the law.

Positive discrimination isn’t just illegal. It’s also misguided. If your teams believe that candidates are hired through positive discrimination, you can expect significant ill-will and a breakdown in morale.

If employees feel that they’ve only been hired because of their protected characteristics, it can be almost as harmful to their mental and emotional well-being as typical discrimination. They’re still being reduced to just their characteristics — not being seen as a sum of their parts.

Deliberately or not, positive discrimination tells your staff that what they are matters more than who they are. It’s disrespectful and deeply hurtful.

How to avoid positive discrimination while still considering DEI

So, how can you improve diversity within your teams without falling into the positive discrimination trap?

The solution comes when you focus your DEI efforts on creating a fair, accepting, and inclusive workplace for everyone rather than prioritising simple metrics.

Have clear DEI goals

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the importance of DEI and how it helps your employees thrive. It should be a key part of your strategic business planning rather than an optional add-on or tick-box exercise.

Having a thoughtful strategy around DEI allows you to ensure that you have the right targets. Overall representation levels are a useful metric, but your aim should be to achieve diverse teams by being open to talent from various backgrounds.

Where are your DEI efforts focused? Are you trying to hit a target, or do you want to overcome institutional bias and preconceptions?

Focus on skills, not metrics

Filling a new role is an excellent opportunity to improve your diversity. Start as you mean to go on by creating an inclusive job advert

Don’t start by considering the qualifications or experience you want your new hire to have. Instead, start by considering the skills they will need to use. 

You probably already have some ideas about how applicants can demonstrate that skill, but look for ways that those from all backgrounds can showcase their abilities. 

For example, using a degree to demonstrate that a candidate is proactive about learning works well for those from some backgrounds, but those from deprived backgrounds may have had caring responsibilities that prevented them from attending university. 

Let them showcase their strengths as well.

Remove unnecessary information

Remove the temptation for recruiters to use protected characteristics in their hiring decisions by not giving them access to that information.

Information such as name, sex, and date of birth are needed on a CV, but that doesn’t mean your hiring panel need it, especially early on in your recruitment process. Anonymise CVs and applications for as long as possible to remove potential sources of bias.

Use an interview template

You can only keep protected characteristics secret for so long. At some point in the recruitment process, managers and team leaders will want to meet candidates for face-to-face or online interviews.

Having a solid interview process can help you reduce bias in your recruitment. It can also help candidates from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds feel confident that you take DEI seriously.

Use an interview template to ensure all candidates have the same experience while balancing connecting with applicants personally and eliminating bias from the process. Asking all candidates the same questions in the same order allows you to make better comparisons.

crooton can help you improve your DEI, the right way

Positive discrimination isn’t a shortcut to DEI success, but crooton can be. Get in touch with our expert team today to see how we can help you achieve your DEI goals sustainably and affordably.