Prejudi-shhh…It is of course, illegal to discriminate when recruiting, but recent research shows that all is not as it should be. Max Williamson explains:

Although one would assume, or at least hope, that discrimination had been largely forced out of the relatively refined worlds of finance and professional services, received what can only be described as very disappointing responses to a recent survey on the subject. Unfortunately, it appears that discrimination is alive and well, from 74% of respondents believing that gender is a barrier to promotion, to 79% believing that age discrimination exists and even 23% believing that someone is likely to lose out on a promotion due to baldness.

I’m sure that most recruiters would be able to back up these findings with their own anecdotes. As the meat in the recruitment sandwich, biases and prejudices are often communicated to recruiters explicitly or are deduced by the recruiter by means of the employer’s behaviour. For example, it’s not uncommon for recruiters to be told by an employer that they would prefer to receive candidates from a certain age group, and even if discrimination is not voiced, it doesn’t take a long time for a recruiter to observe that an employer will avoid interviewing candidates from, say, a certain ethnic background.


Virulence in Emerging Markets

Interestingly, it does appear that discrimination appears to be most virulent in emerging markets, where the business landscape is largely seen as a male preserve and where there appears to be a prevailing belief that a senior figure in the company needs to be male in order to be taken seriously by the business community. While companies are happy to recruit female employees at a more junior level, there is clearly a glass ceiling, and women have to outperform their male colleagues by some distance even to stand a chance of gaining access to the top roles. In facet, many female accountants from areas such as the Balkans will regularly choose to develop their careers in Western Europe, where they feel they will have access to a more level playing field.

In more mature markets, litigation has largely seen off explicit discrimination, but one only has to look at the proportion of females who qualify as accountants and compare that figure with the number who actually make it to partnership to see that discrimination exists. So what can be done?

Well, it’s very important that companies offer an environment in which employees feel comfortable raising their concerns. In our survey, 36% of respondents were concerned that raising such an issue would count against them in the long-term. Professional bodies and institutes should also be taking a leading role in combating discrimination against their members. After all, they are marketing internationally recoginsed qualifications to a global community and it’s only right that they should be promoting the value of that qualification above concerns over gender, age and ethnic background. Interestingly, 89% or respondents to the survey felt that such bodies should be lending greater weight to the cause.

Recruiters also have an important role to play. Agencies should encourage their recruiters to continue to offer candidates on the basis of their ability alone and make attempts to educate their clients. Most clients believe that they are some way shielded by using a recruiter, but if a job description makes reference to any form of discrimination then it is the client who is liable, not the recruiter.

Also, it’s important that hiring managers, particularly those within multinationals, are encouraged to create more diverse teams. Cross-cultural, ethnically diverse, international teams function better than any others and are more likely to deliver value to their organisation.

Additionally, working in such teams instils in employees a belief and confidence in the concept of a truly diverse workforce, and they are therefore more likely to adopt a similar approach when they move into management themselves.

Ultimately, employers and recruiters both need to take a tougher and more proactive stance to stop discrimination being so rife. Maybe then we will see that greater diversity and equality exists in the accountancy profession.




Featured in Accountancy Magazine.  Written by Max Williamson, director of

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