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Recruitment in the arts is broken – especially when it comes to recruiting ethnically diverse talent, says Amanda Parker

Two men waiting for an interview

There are some serious potholes in the road to making leadership in the creative industries more inclusive, and the gap is widening between recruiters who get it, and those perpetuating systemic disparity.

The sector was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Already significantly lacking diversity pre-lockdown, a TUC report in 2021 confirmed that since lockdown there’s been a 44% drop in the number of black women employed in the creative and cultural industries. Many sectors are finding it tough to recruit, few more so than the arts. 
A shrinking talent pool, an increase in hiring needs - add to the mix Arts Council England’s strategic emphasis on inclusion in leadership and you can (almost) forgive recruiters sifting LinkedIn to look for marginalised and racialised creative executives. They’re a little like prospectors who’ve come too late to the gold rush. 

Clumsy recruitment

But we’re not just talking about the casually inexpert practice of finding black leaders on LinkedIn. As a cultural consultant and advocate for inclusion, I’m privy to a breadth of insights from the broadest range of lived experience, cultures, regions and creative practice. And compared to their peers, arts leaders from marginalised and racialised backgrounds are experiencing very different interactions with recruitment firms - interactions that suggest a worrying trend in hiring practices, that are resulting in poor outcomes for almost everyone involved. 
Not only are recruitment agencies approaching candidates to consider roles after only a cursory online search (usual for prospective candidates irrespective of background), but those from marginalised and racialised backgrounds uniformly report firms asking them to apply for jobs they’re not adequately qualified for. One arts leader, whose specialism is theatre, says “I’ve been asked to apply for just about every Exec Director job going – from the National theatre to a community music – and I’ve never worked in music or community settings”. 

This might seem fair enough from recruiters, especially as research attests that those from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to under-sell rather than over-sell their skills in the jobs market. But this encouragement feels disingenuous when there is no subsequent support offered to candidates in how to frame their existing skillset or experience in ways most conducive to success at interview stage. And when that inexperience is held up as a barrier to success – only after candidates have applied – then it feels positively suspect.
Candidates have described conversations in which they’ve questioned their suitability for suggested roles and have been assured by recruiters that their inexperience in key areas of the job description “would not be a dealbreaker”,  only to be told by the same recruiters that their application was unsuccessful after interview, because of the same gap in experience they flagged in the first place. 
Marginalised creative leaders also get explicit requests from firms to provide names and details of others who might be interested in the role. This goes beyond the “please share with your networks” request that many are familiar with. One leader expressed the effect this has on them: “So, is it me, or my networks you’re after? And can you be honest about it please?”
For many creative leaders, this clumsy approach feels uncomfortably close to asking for unpaid work to support firms’ recruitment, with many asking: “Why would I do their work for free? And without any assurance that those organisations are ready to support inclusion in their workplaces?” Others I spoke to felt torn between helping position great candidates for the role and being asked to help shortcut a process that should involve a genuine and authentic engagement with the lives, careers and ambitions of jobseekers. 

Diverse shortlist, same outcomes

Candidates are increasingly feeling they are being asked to make up a diverse shortlist, and not being seen as viable candidates. One HR lead in a large-scale creative business told me they’re “pleased to have fielded a more diverse shortlist but haven’t seen any discernible change in hiring outcomes”. This from an organisation with a massive breadth of creative business activity, with hundreds of senior roles and huge resource capacity to develop internal talent. Despite the diversity of shortlist, the outcomes are conforming to past type. How so?
The diverse shortlist trend is affirmed by independent head-hunters, who are increasingly asked to help agencies to build inclusive shortlists. They attest to a discernible difference between organisations genuinely committed to creating a more inclusive leadership team and “avoid like the plague” those who build diverse shortlists to meet trustees and funders’ requirements without genuine engagement or investment in achieving more inclusive outcomes. 
The successful independent head-hunters uniformly comment that high demand for their services reflects a lack of prior investment in the cultural sector and inattention to the careers of marginalised individuals. One summed up the attitude of the bigger recruitment agencies simply: “They’ve not done the groundwork.”

What’s to be done?

These are no isolated examples. A group of leaders gathered recently to discuss what they’ve observed in recruitment strategies and explore what can helpfully be done. With representation across the performing arts, galleries and collections, what we had in common was the shared experience of engagement with head-hunters, and a collective concern that recruitment agencies’ methods and approach was increasingly making a problem worse. Some participants shared promising insights from the more canny recruitment companies who are keen to both keep market share and make a difference. 
Firms are wise to invest in talent beyond the recruitment cycle. As in any other business, the best results come from building connections through genuine, mutually beneficial dialogues.  Sharing insights widely, and offering free, informal strategic support to current and emerging talent will reap huge dividends, build trust and improve the conversion from ‘diverse shortlist’ to ‘diverse hire’. 

From helping candidates rehearse and prepare for interviews (currently minimal or non-existent), to building group dialogues with marginalised and racialised creatives, through to collectively exploring market and job issues and trends, the more firms build deep knowledge over time, the more likely they are to not just find prospective candidates but also to know who’s up and coming for future roles. As many I spoke to said: “They have lots of knowledge about roles coming up, and none about who’s out there. But the information flow isn’t exactly two-way, is it?”
In researching this article I’ve observed some recruitment firms have welcomed conversations about the approaches suggested here, and others who’ve been keen to talk about specific roles – but not so keen to follow up with wider conversations about change. It will be interesting to see how they fare as the buoyancy in the job market continues to make finding the right candidate a challenge for those not prepared to think differently. 
In a market where the talent field is depleted and may are questioning the motives behind clumsy approaches, the smart money will use old school methods and override the practice of ‘recruitment at speed and by algorithm’ - by getting to know individuals and investing in authentic and mutually beneficial dialogues that support retention and progression for marginalised creatives. 

Amanda Parker is a Creative Consultant and Director of Policy, Research & Communications at the Forward Institute.

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