The problem with "hiring people on merit"

The unemployment rate for BAME people of working age is nearly double that of white British groups, according to UK government research released last year.

While shocking, this statistic will not come as a surprise to many with biases - both conscious and unconscious - built into so many of Britain’s industries, businesses and employment practices.

On the latest episode of the Breaking Barriers podcast we decided to explore the barriers to fair work opportunities and employment that race can often present, through the lens of the film industry.

Jordan Bangura is a young, confident black man who has been involved in the charity Cardboard Citizens for several years, making life-changing theatre with and for homeless people and has aspirations to work in the film industry. Richard Loncraine is a white film director and Oscar winner, based in West London, who spends much of his time in the US having had a very successful career in Hollywood.

In this episode, the two sit down to talk unashamedly about race; how the industry has changed its perception of race over the years, why representation is important and their hopes for the future… with one or two Hollywood anecdotes along the way.

Jordan and Richard sit down for a discussion

But what did this episode teach us?

  • Young black men have higher unemployment rates than all other groups of young people. This alone is an uncomfortable statistic but when compared to the numbers of young white men in employment the reality of the situation becomes even more shocking, with a 2013 survey discovering that only 56 per cent of young black men in the UK had found employment, compared with 81 per cent of young white men.
  • The importance of representation. The need for governments and businesses to be representative of the society they operate in is often discussed and on this episode a story from Jordan underlined the practical implications of how this plays out. "That moment I saw John Boyega on television, that’s when everything changed for me," explained Jordan. "I always wanted to act when I was a kid, but when you don’t see people on TV with the colour of your skin, you think it’s not realistic."
  • The merit paradox. Throughout the conversation between Jordan and Richard the idea of "hiring on merit" was talked about a fair bit, which on face value may seem an acceptable state of affairs. However as our presenter Yassmin was quick to point out, the presence of unconcious bias can often undermine this approach. "When people say they hire on merit, what actually happens, unconsciously, is that they hire what the idea of the best person of the job is," notes Yassmin. "That’s the merit paradox.”

This week sees the release of the fourth episode of the series, which focuses on cerebral palsy. You can search Breaking Barriers and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, SpotifyPocket CastCastbox or where ever you get your podcasts from.


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