How to ensure inclusive recruitment for disadvantaged students during Covid-19

Jun 18, 2020 | Diversity

ISE CEO Stephen Isherwood shares insights from our recent webinar where Clifford Chance, Civil Service Fast Stream, the Social Mobility Foundation and Rare Recruitment discuss the social mobility challenge and how employers can ensure inclusive recruitment for disadvantaged students during Covid-19.

The current crisis presents two problems that could have a disproportionally negative impact on students from a low socio-economic background.

Firstly, their education and social experiences are suffering. Secondly, with budgets under pressure and lowered recruitment targets, firms could put less focus on their social mobility programmes.

Digital poverty

Sarah Atkinson of The Social Mobility Foundation highlights the issue of digital poverty, “even if students do have the kit they may not have a good Wi-Fi connection or may be relying on mobile data packages”.

In smaller households, students may not have the private space to study or work, and they will be more likely to be supporting younger siblings. Employers should watch their assumptions advises Sarah, “your safeguarding policies may say bedrooms can’t be used for online meetings, but this could be the only quiet space available to a student”.

Sarah comments that the students they work with are more engaged than ever and they know the jobs market is tough. But less privileged students can be less confident which means they could be less confident online.

As more recruitment processes move online due to the pandemic, Sarah cautions employers to be doubly aware of superficialities and to give candidates practical support upfront on the tools and platforms they are asking students to use.

Grade uncertainty

With schools and universities in lockdown, educators have had to rethink how the qualification awarding process will work this year. As autonomous bodies universities will set their own rules and many have adopted ‘no-detriment’ policies, so students on track for a 2:1 will get a 2:1.

For schools the government has set out how exam boards will determine grades. Teachers will predict grades based on mocks and coursework and rank pupils in order of expected attainment. Ofqual will then standardise results across the country based on historical school performance.

But there is evidence that teachers underestimate the potential of higher performing students from disadvantaged groups”, says Naomi Kellman of Rare Recruitment, “and students from ethnic groups perform better when assessments are blind”.

Students are also worried about grade caps. Someone who could be first in their school to be predicted to achieve an A* could find themselves marked down through the standardisation process.

Students won’t know their predicted grades until results day and their concerns aren’t helped by the fact that the appeals process hasn’t been confirmed yet. Naomi recommends that employers who use contextual data should double down on their use of such systems.

Naomi also cautions that students awarded grades this year could be in the system for some time. Those doing A-levels will not be applying to employer’s graduate programmes for a few years.

The employer perspective

Employer recruitment teams have had to respond quickly to the coronavirus, often making decisions about internships, hiring plans and development programmes without facts to hand.

And the economic impact of the crisis has caused many organisations to look very closely at their budgets. “A decade of good work could be put at risk through short-term budget cuts”, cautions Laura Yeates of Clifford Chance.

Amid the pressures on her team, Laura has been keen to remain focused on the six elements of Clifford Chance’s successful social mobility strategy:

  • Provide meaningful pre-university work experience
  • Develop credible, long-term relationships with schools
  • Focus selection methods on breaking down barriers to entry
  • Create genuine alternative methods to enter the firm
  • Be smart with the use of online platforms to reach new talent pools
  • Support to ensure candidates don’t self-select out due to financial hardship

Employers have an opportunity to revisit their selection methods as they move recruitment online. Phil Wilson, Chief Psychologist at the Civil Service Fast Stream, recommends that employers strip away elements of their selection process that don’t have a positive impact. He’s also found that reducing time to hire increases engagement and has a positive impact on diversity.

With a decrease in overall graduate vacancies competition for jobs is likely to increase. Phil highlights the importance of partnerships to ensure that as applications rise the diversity of an intake rises too. The Civil Service has worked with the Bridge Group to fully review its selection process. This resulted in stripping out elements that didn’t have a positive impact on candidate selection.

Laura is excited by the new recruitment season, the opportunity to make fundamental changes, democratise access to information and opportunities and remove restrictions on access to programmes. An example of if this is Clifford Chance’s soon to be launched open access global virtual internship programme.

For those with diversity programmes to manage, Laura has three recommendations: “revolutionise don’t replicate, be an advocate for change, and safeguard long-term investments”.

Ten top tips to ensure inclusive recruitment during Covid-19

  1. Revolutionise – don’t just replicate marketing and recruitment methods this autumn
  2. Recognise that it’s not enough to simply transfer face-to-face materials online
  3. Use platforms that also work on mobiles and tablets
  4. Strip out elements of selection process that don’t have a positive impact
  5. Be aware that students could have achieved their grades in circumstances tougher than normal
  6. Recognise that this year’s A-level students may not appear in your selection process for another couple of years
  7. Use virtual tools to reduce time to hire as it increases engagement
  8. Show students how to use your online tools and virtual platforms and talk upfront about how you will deal with interruptions
  9. Ask about circumstances – recognise that all home environments are not the same
  10. Protect investments – don’t undo previous hard work


For their contributions to the ISE webinar and this blog, our thanks to: Sarah Atkinson, Chief Executive, The Social Mobility Foundation; Naomi Kellman, Senior Manager, Schools and Universities, Rare; Phil Wilson, Head of Assessment and Diversity, Civil Service Fast Stream; Laura Yeates, Head of Graduate Talent, Clifford Chance.

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