by John Nelson
Chair, National Police Autism Association
I recently saw a tweet from the Bluelight Consultancy – a company specialising in seminars to prepare candidates for police recruitment and internal selection processes – which made me sit up and take notice. Bluelight was advising its non-BME (black and minority ethnic) potential officer customers to declare their ethnicity as “White Other” on their applications in order to gain access to BME-only ‘Positive Action’ workshops offered by some police forces, as part of a drive to get more BME officers into the police service. In the opinion of Bluelight, these workshops provided a significant (and unfair) advantage over other candidates:
Setting aside the moral question of encouraging candidates to lie on their application (or at least to consider the implications of how they fill in the diversity questionnaire), this was surprising to see, as Positive Action is intended to help people overcome disadvantages to help them into work or to progress their career. And yet here was a recruitment consultancy acknowledging that people from one particular protected characteristic were being given an advantage over everyone else to help them to pass, and encouraging all their paying customers to ‘game the system’ to be in with a fair chance of success. What’s going on?
First, a quick definition from the Citizens Advice website: Positive Action is an employer “taking steps to help or encourage certain groups of people with different needs, or who are disadvantaged in some way, access work or training.” PA is established in law – the Equality Act 2010, to be exact – and is linked to protected characteristics, also referred to in policing parlance as ‘strands of diversity’. The Equality Act sets down nine protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, gender, and sexual orientation. PA is there to assist anyone from these groups who, for whatever reason, are disadvantaged due to that characteristic. A simple example of PA is an employer providing ramps, lifts and accessible toilet facilities to make it possible for a wheelchair user to work in their premises.
Positive Action can also be used to encourage members of a particular protected characteristic group into employment or specialist posts, where the levels of participation by that group are low. A typical example here is a police force running recruitment open days specifically for female officers interested in becoming firearms officers. Firearms in policing has traditionally been seen as a ‘male thing’, which in itself might be enough to stop capable female officers from applying. So, in an effort to redress the balance, a police force might make an extra effort to encourage females to put in an application. The crucial thing here is that once they have applied, female candidates are treated equally – they are expected to meet the same assessment standards as everyone else.
But what if efforts to tempt female officers to sign on the dotted line weren’t working? How about if we were to run some recruitment processes just for female candidates, in order to boost the numbers up and redress the balance? This is an example of Positive Discrimination – treating one group of people favourably over another in order to achieve recruitment quotas. Positive Discrimination is illegal in most circumstances under the Equality Act – and rightly so in my opinion – because, all other factors being equal, advantage and disadvantage is a zero-sum game. Treat me favourably, and it puts you at a disadvantage. If a suitably-qualified male officer wanted to apply for the firearms recruitment process being run this year, they’d be excluded, purely on the grounds that they were male. All we’ve done is to replace one form of discrimination with another – two wrongs don’t make a right.
So that is the fundamental difference between Positive Action, which is legal, and Positive Discrimination, which is not – doing what we can to encourage particular groups to participate, rather than giving them an overt advantage over others, and removing barriers. This isn’t to say that employees or potential employees can never be treated favourably as part of PA – in the rare event of a ‘tiebreak’ situation in which two candidates score the same in a selection process, under PA the candidate from a protected characteristic can be given the job if their characteristic is under-represented in their chosen role. The EA also allows disabled staff to be treated favourably – for example, being given ‘first dibs’ on a role that accommodates their disability, due to the particular challenges a disabled person faces in getting into, and staying in, employment. But the spirit of PA is about doing what we can to encourage minority groups to participate, and ensuring they’re not disadvantaged when they do so.
Unfortunately, ‘encouraging participation’ and ‘removing disadvantages’ are flexible concepts, and this is where things start to get messy. To go back to our example of firearms recruitment – knowing that the recruitment process includes a tough fitness test, what if we included some fitness tips in our female-only workshop? Nothing wrong with that – the test is designed to be equally passable by women as well as men, everyone still has to pass on their own merit, and we wouldn’t be telling our female candidates anything that a male candidate couldn’t find out for themselves. But what if we were to offer our female candidates a couple of months of one-to-one fitness training with a personal trainer, at the Force’s expense? What if we tailored that training to the particular demands of the test? What if went even further and offered female candidates tuition on passing the written tests – giving them sight of previous test papers, telling them what sort of questions are ‘likely to come up’ (the latter perhaps said with a knowing wink). Is this still PA? How would this make male candidates feel, and those from other under-represented groups who might not be getting the same ‘support’?
Employment lawyers might argue the point – and any such process would no doubt have been given a once-over to ensure that it stays on the right side of the law – but, is it still fair? Does it stay within the spirit of PA? This is the situation that some police forces have got into with BME recruitment, and to which Bluelight has raised concerns. Given that BME candidates are no less capable than anyone else, is it really fair to offer someone a workshop tailored to passing a recruitment process, based on their ethnicity? Knowing that not many BME candidates are likely to apply despite our best efforts, is it fair to do everything we can to ensure that they all pass, short of giving them the answers in advance? What about other protected characteristics, which are also under-represented in the police service compared to the general population (extremely so, in the case of disability) – what are we doing for them?
These concerns don’t only apply to the external recruitment process – some Forces also offer intensive development programmes for BME officers to prepare them for promotion, including confidence-building exercises, coursework, mentoring and networking opportunities, sometimes run over a year or longer. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? These are all fantastic things for a talented disabled or neurodivergent candidate. An officer on the autism spectrum who finds day-to-day ‘small talk’ difficult – including those all-important casual chats in the corridor with the friendly Superintendent who asks how your career is getting on – might benefit enormously from opportunities to get talking with senior people, to develop confidence and to break down superficial communication barriers. Mentoring a disabled candidate is a great way to guide them into a particular career path and to help them make the most of their skills.
And yet, these courses are BME-only. Even though the development opportunities on offer might help overcome practical difficulties associated with a disability, apply as a disabled candidate and (unless you also tick the BME box) you’ll be refused. Sorry, this isn’t for you, but you’re free to put your promotion application in – you’ll have the same chance as everyone else.
I acknowledge there’s no easy answer to overcoming the problem of under-representation. A perennial problem with justifying PA opportunities for disability is that we don’t know how many disabled employees there are, because disabled staff tend to be reluctant to disclose their disability at work; perhaps in fear – sadly justified, in my experience – that their career will suffer if they do. So nothing is done for them, and nothing changes – Catch-22. In the 25 years since the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and the subsequent Macpherson report which infamously labelled the Metropolitan Police Service as institutionally racist, much time, effort and money has been expended on improving the ethnic diversity of the police service; and yet, we as a Service still fail to represent the diverse nature of the communities we serve, prompting Alex Marshall, former Head of the College of Policing, to call for the legalisation of Positive Discrimination to allow BME recruitment targets to be met. How do we break the cycle and ‘get diversity right’?
As a white, male officer on the autism spectrum who has encountered prejudice and discrimination throughout my career – sometimes deliberate, sometimes unconscious and well-intentioned – this is something I have an opinion on. The problems around BME recruitment and progression, the perceived need to favour certain groups over others to achieve the desired representation, and the considerable difficulties faced by disabled staff, all stem from the same thing: fear of difference.
At its heart, the police service is still a conservative institution that expects its officers, staff and volunteers to look, act and think in a certain way, dependent on their rank and role – a social pecking-order defined by job titles, stripes, pips and crowns. This is the culture an officer from a minority group enters, and once the supportive environment of the recruitment process melts away, they’re likely to find their personal aspects of difference count against them. Only the most determined and well-connected few can make it, and – iterated over successive promotion processes – this ensures that only a very few minority officers ever reach the top, with openly disabled and neurodivergent officers effectively being blocked completely. Well-meaning efforts to push PA beyond its ethical boundaries in recruitment and selection are a sticking plaster that cannot cure the underlying malaise.
So – how about if instead of focusing on the impossible juggling act of righting the wrongs affecting particular strands of diversity, we adopt a culture of embracing and encouraging difference, in all its forms? So you’re a fifty-something looking for a change of career, or black, or female, or gay, or autistic or dyslexic, or any or all of those? Or even something not linked to a protected characteristic – being an introvert can be tough in a profession that attracts and rewards extrovert personalities. Whatever makes you ‘you’, It doesn’t matter – we still want you, we genuinely care about the things that make you different, and we’ll give you whatever support you need to be successful, tailored to your needs. And it isn’t just about overcoming negatives – we recognise that you bring unique skills and values to the job, and we want to make the best of those. Focusing on the positives isn’t just the morally right thing to do – it makes good business sense, which is why the likes of JP Morgan are introducing programmes to recruit and develop autistic staff. If you want to know what works in business, follow the money.
It’s my belief that if we change our culture to one that truly values difference, we will gain a deeper trust from the communities we serve – and moreover, recruitment of all minority groups will naturally improve, as potential officers will see us as an organisation that values them as an individual. ∎