As arts organisations struggle to fill critical roles, Amanda Parker shares must-dos - and must don’ts - for those hoping to recruit a talented, experienced and inclusive workforce.
John Carpenter’s 80s cult classic ‘They Live’ was one of the better moments of lockdown chez Parkers. There’s a moment in the film when the hero dons a pair of sunglasses which allows him to see the world as it really is – full of aliens who, hiding in plain sight as humans, have taken over the planet, and use adverts and billboards to pump subliminal messages to humans reinforcing their unwitting obedience.
It’s a satisfyingly cheesy tale, but if we were able to don those specs right now, what would we make of the arts and cultural sector’s current recruitment drive?
Perhaps the ads would read something like: “We have a vacancy for a human sponge able to soak up the emotional frustrations of others, stay diplomatic and positive, be willing to work for a salary up to 20% less than in other sectors, in a role that has been downgraded in seniority. Your visibility will be critical to us, but your ability to influence will be limited.”
A shrinking talent pool
Recruitment of skilled, experienced people is a challenge everywhere now and in the arts and cultural sector, where the commitment to diversifying is a stated high priority for many organisations, that challenge is playing out in some very odd conversations across a swathe of organisations ranging in size, creative practice and region.
Many reading this will be well-acquainted with the pressing demand to fill vacancies for communications staff, business managers, HR and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion leads. And at the same time, many ethnically diverse staff, qualified for those roles, can tell you when they donned the John Carpenter specs and hightailed it out of the sector.
Faced with a shrinking pool of talent, it’s not surprising that demand is particularly high for skilled, ethnically diverse staff who were already under-represented in the workforce prior to the pandemic. So what can organisations do to hire well? And how do we avoid this becoming a permanent, repeating refrain?
1. Re-think hiring: is the rush to recruit setting up for failure?
Hiring at speed is inequitable, not least because of the lack of transparency of available roles, and the need for some in our communities to have time and space to access information, process and act on it. But there’s strong anecdotal evidence of something far more insidious at play.
At Inc Arts we’ve received reports of recruiters considering ethnically diverse people for leadership roles and heavily promoting their desire to appoint diverse candidates but only after adjusting the job descriptions, reducing line management duties, reducing the seniority of the role, and effectively demoting the role to a deputy, associate or second-in-command role, rather than joint leadership roles.
Not only is this insidious, it’s in direct conflict with the equity the organisations claim to espouse in seeking ethnically diverse people for those roles. And believe me, people do notice, and people do talk.
If you’re considering hiring someone for a large role but you know they’ve not enough experience to effect it, the last thing you should do is demote the role. The first thing you should do is support the role and the candidate you hope to attract. Can you hire a consultant alongside the successful candidate for the first 6 months to ensure that person has the grounding they need to succeed? How might you introduce joint leadership roles and support both leaders to share power and build a sustainable diverse leadership?
2. Re-think the source: do we need to appoint from a dwindling pool? Or do we need to go beyond the creative and cultural pool?
Right now, just about every creative leader of Asian or African heritage is fielding an unprecedented number of calls from people looking for staff, asking for leads and asking if we can get hold of great producers/administrators/directors/writers/fundraisers and every other role you can think of. But how many seeking staff are thinking beyond the immediate hiring need?
There is far greater diversity in other sectors – particularly in the public sector – yet we’re almost pathologically averse to seeking talent beyond our own sector. Ethnically diverse people who’ve chosen other career paths have already weighed up job security, pay and career progression in deciding where to commit their skills and energies. So it’s our job to win them over.
The pandemic has made clear that arts and culture can be closed down with ease. Why then would skilled people choose to work here, rather than the charity sector, local authorities or financial services (to name three at random) where there's greater assurance that the work will continue should we ever again face a year like 2020?
The creative and cultural sector needs to get far more collaborative, savvy and future-focused in its recruitment drives. We can build secondment and job share opportunities across different sectors (not just different creative practices); and we can invest in bringing middle managers and team leaders in from other business practices into creative ones. In doing so, we build opportunity and allow those we so desperately want to bring in to explore safely and figure out how they too can work in a sector that at its best can be exciting, energising and constantly self-refreshing.
3. Rethink how we do EDI: do you need an EDI and Inclusion Manager? Or do you need to better manage your inclusion strategy?
It’s a bit like setting out to lose weight by hiring someone to diet for you while you carry on enjoying cream cakes: some changes may happen, but you won’t benefit from them. Hiring someone at the height of the storm, to sort out what’s often a highly emotional mess, is far from being a person-focused, inclusive start to anyone’s job. How then can anyone succeed under these conditions?
At Inc Arts, we’ve heard from many EDI managers (working both within and outside the creative and cultural sector) who have experienced serious mental health issues following their appointments, and who have left the role entirely. They have struggled with the high responsibility for mental wellbeing of staff and an absence of any means of ensuring inclusive goals are met. Their feelings are ones of powerlessness and tokenism, that their role is to absorb impact rather than create change.
The tension between acting as an agent for change without the tools to make it happen proves too much when an organisation appoints someone who’s ethnically diverse – and who is far too frequently the only person of diverse heritage on the senior management team – to drive a change that isn’t embedded within the organisation’s objectives, and reflected in appraisals systems, rewards and sanctions.
There is a vital need to ensure inclusion remains a business priority for all organisations wanting to survive and thrive in a country that continues to grow demographically more diverse. And there is a way for the EDI role to be a successful and integral one, especially in larger organisations. But if you make your EDI role a hybrid of enforcer/ambassador/agony uncle/events planner – which so many job descriptions are – then it will not fly. Inclusive best practice needs to be embedded across the entire business practice as a metric of success for all those in senior management, and all team leaders, not hived off as a topic for one person to report on.
Inclusive practice must be embedded across the organisation
Sure, appointing an EDI lead is an improvement on asking existing staff to take charge of inclusion targets simply on account of their skin colour rather than their professional expertise – and the best EDI leads have a wealth of serious skill. So if you choose to continue with the appointment of this particular role, you may need to reflect on what this role should cover.
Where leaders have embedded inclusive practice within all business areas then the EDI function becomes of utmost importance in governance and compliance of all organisational targets, from sustainability goals through to monitoring fundraising targets.
Radical organisations who wish to create meaningful change do so through collaboration and power-sharing. They do not assign one individual to make the change, finesse the job description to reduce autonomy or set people up for failure. Instead they enact that change in their workplace behaviours, fundamental practices and organisational structures. Without that, we won’t see equitable change anywhere.
We can’t change these numbers without organisation-wide, actionable commitments that are specific and address the issues at hand – from micro-aggressions in dressing rooms, to toxic behaviours in boardrooms. Since launching Unlock*, our free anti-racist toolkit for the arts, we have seen over 300 organisations across the UK commit to this real change. If you’ve not already dived in, we’d love to see you there.
Amanda Parker is the Director and Founder of Inc Arts UK.
This article in one of a series from Inc Arts UK, a national collective that champions the creative, economic and contractual rights of the UK’s African diaspora, Asian diaspora and ethnically diverse workforce in the arts and cultural sector.
*Unlock is Inc Arts UK’s free anti-racism toolkit with over 130 actionable steps, tips and best practice examples of how to build sustainable change in your creative place of work. We will be running free clinics for all to get advice on enacting change in your workplace. For more information visit https://incartsunlock.co.uk