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Mohammed Amin: In praise of ethnic monitoring

Screen shot 2012-06-18 at 11.12.42Mohammed Amin is Vice Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Ethnic monitoring means the keeping of ethnicity statistics regarding employees, job applicants, or in certain cases the users of public services. Statistics may also be collected on the basis of religion or other characteristics, but for conciseness I just use “ethnic monitoring in this piece. From time to time I see occasional complaints about ethnic monitoring as being wasteful or “political correctness gone mad.” Accordingly I want to explain why I support it.

How it is done

Most large employers will ask job applicants, as part of the application process, to self-classify under one or more criteria, such as ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation. There is no attempt to audit the self-classification. Critically, the applicant is almost invariably offered the option “prefer not to disclose” for each separate criterion.

This data is then stored by the employer. Subsequent analysis allows the employer to assess whether discrimination might be happening in its recruitment processes.

For example, the employer may find that amongst applicants who have upper second class degrees from Russell Group universities, 50% of white applicants are offered a job, 45% of applicants from South Asian backgrounds, but only 15% of applicants from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds. Such data does not by itself establish that the recruitment department is deliberately discriminating against Afro-Caribbean applicants, but it points towards an anomaly that requires investigation. It may also mean that unintended discrimination is occurring due to some aspect of the way the recruitment process is being undertaken.

Statistics don’t have to be collected only during the job application process. An employer may also find it valuable to ascertain ethnicity (and other) statistics for its existing workforce.

A real-life example

Before retirement, I was a tax partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC) and served on its Supervisory Board. Our collection of ethnicity statistics during job applications meant that our Head of Diversity was able to demonstrate to the Supervisory Board, with solid statistics, that PwC didn’t just claim to be an equal opportunity employer; we could prove it. Taking into account previous educational examination grades, an ethnic minority applicant had the same chance of being recruited by us as did a white applicant.

However our record keeping was very patchy when it came to people already in the firm, as opposed to applicants. Indeed our statistics appeared to show that we had no ethnic minority partners, despite my sitting at the Supervisory Board table, and many other ethnic minority partners being in the partnership.

Accordingly we became rigorous about collecting statistics, by requiring all personnel to deal with an ethnic monitoring computer screen as part of their annual selection of benefits under our flexible benefits scheme. After this change, we had virtually complete ethnic monitoring data (recognising that “prefer not to disclose” is always a selection option).

This led to two business benefits:

  1. We had reliable statistics for ethnic minority partners and staff, for responding to industry surveys and for publishing in our own annual reports. This is actually quite important in practice. I recall a conversation with a Sikh senior manager who had not previously been aware that we had any ethnic minority partners; after he met me knowing of their existence reassured him that there was no ethnic glass ceiling.
  2. We were able to assess whether ethnic minorities had the same rate of promotion and progression as white members of staff.

This PwC experience convinced me that the benefits of ethnic monitoring are real, and valuable to the organisation. They are not just a compliance tool.

A lesson from France

About five years ago, I attended a networking session in London organised by a group of French Muslims. As I circulated, everyone I spoke with told me more or less the same story:

  • They were born or grew up in France, from an Arab immigrant background.
  • They went through the French school and university system.
  • Upon graduating, they could not get a proper “graduate job” in France no matter how hard they tried.
  • They came to London. Despite speaking English as their second or third language, very quickly they got good jobs in sectors such as banking or IT.
  • Each was certain that it was discrimination in France that stopped them getting a job, while white French people with similar qualifications got jobs readily.

In France it is illegal to practice ethnic monitoring. The  ideological basis of this ban is that France believes in liberty, equality and fraternity; all Frenchmen are equal, so such monitoring is prohibited. The outcome of course is that French employers can discriminate without any evidence being collated that could demonstrate that discrimination is occurring.

Policy implications

As Conservatives we need to be strong supporters of ethnic monitoring and ensure that it is used as widely as possible. There is never any substitute for having good data; it either shows that the organisation is performing well or identifies areas that may need further investigation.

As far as I can recall, every major piece of equality legislation was brought in by the Labour Party over Conservative opposition. While we cannot change history, if we are serious about being the party for everyone we need to embrace the achievement of equality, using all appropriate tools.

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