Senior managers creating organisations of clones

Employer bias is leading three in 10 (29 per cent) senior managers to hire people just like them, risking business innovation and potential

British business potential is at risk because employer bias is still rife in some organisations, according to new market research commissioned by The Open University.

The study amongst business leaders and employees finds that three in 10 (29 per cent) senior managers admit they hire people just like them, and warns employers may be overlooking candidates from different social and educational backgrounds, impacting access to talent, and hindering business innovation and performance as a result.

Employers place significant importance on educational attainment (86 per cent), cultural fit (77 per cent), tastes and leisure pursuits (65 per cent), and even social background (61 per cent). Considering the typical social make up of managers[1], this raises concerns about diversity, a key driver of innovation, and hints at a glass ceiling for those from less privileged backgrounds, with the re-enforcement of the historical class system.

The issue is prevalent in both recruitment and employment, with bias creating a ‘degree premium’, particularly at entry level. More than half (55 per cent) of managers would not be willing to take on employees without a degree and train them up in the skills required, which puts the minimum entry requirement out of reach for many.

And this bias continues once employed, as three in 10 (31 per cent) employees with no higher education (HE) have no access to workplace training to improve their skills, in comparison to 21 per cent of those with an HE qualification. A quarter (25 per cent) reports that colleagues who received a better education are given better opportunities.

The ‘degree premium’ has left two thirds (67 per cent) of those with only GCSEs or A-Levels stuck in low or semi-skilled employment – and with the challenge of automation and demand for higher-level skills, offering training to these people could provide a much-needed solution to the UK’s skills shortage.

Many organisations are effectively cloning themselves in the hiring and training decisions they make, which is compounded by the ‘stigma’ attached to apprenticeships and other forms of work-based training. One in six (16 per cent) senior managers still incorrectly believes that apprenticeships are for those who could not get into university, while 13 per cent admit they think less of someone who has done an apprenticeship, but with the recent advent of degree apprenticeships and increase in quality and credibility triggered by the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, managers should revisit their biases and consider the benefits that apprentices can bring.

David Willett, Director at The Open University says: “Conscious or not, employers’ reluctance to hire workers without a degree, in part driven by managerial bias for appointing workers who ‘fit the mould’, is damaging both individual prospects and business potential in the UK. By seeing the latent potential in these workers, and investing in their training, organisations can boost skills and engagement, and bring more diversity into the workforce. An organisation of clones lacks the breadth of life experience and thinking required to drive creativity, innovation, and retain a diverse client base, which is essential if the UK is to compete on a global stage following Brexit.”

The study follows recent market research commissioned by The Open University which found the skills gap is costing UK businesses more than £2 billion a year in higher salaries, recruitment costs and temporary staffing, and the challenge of finding talent with the right skills means that businesses need to change their approach to recruitment, development and retention.

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