Police chief says forces should positively discriminate to boost diversity

Head of NPCC says ‘shock to the system’ needed to increase diversity, as one force falls foul of discrimination laws

Police forces should be allowed to positively discriminate in favour of potential employees from minority ethnic backgrounds in order make themselves more representative of communities they serve, the leader of Britain’s police chiefs has said.

Sara Thornton, chair of the National Police Chief Council (NPCC) said she believed that positive discrimination was needed, and new laws should be passed to “shock the system”.

Her comments were made just days before an employment tribunal found a police force had acted in a discriminatory way when it incorrectly used positive action in a recruitment process.

Positive discrimination, where a recruiter makes a decision based on a protected characteristic, is currently illegal. However, positive action, where an employer compensates for disadvantages faced by minority groups, is legal under certain circumstances.

Thornton was speaking to the Guardian in an interview to mark the 20th anniversary of the Macpherson report, a landmark study into institutional racism in the police force launched as a response to the death of Stephen Lawrence, a black British teenager who was murdered in a racially motivated attack.

Following the report’s publication, police forces have made progress towards creating a more diverse workforce, said Thornton, but unconscious bias still existed.

Since 1999, police forces have been trying to get the proportion of officers from ethnic minorities to match the proportion in the populations they serve, but so far not a single force out of the 43 in England and Wales has achieved this. The earliest this is estimated to be achieved is 2052.

Acknowledging that positive discrimination is unlawful at the moment, Thornton said: “If you want to do something to give a shock to the system and say we can’t wait to 2052, I think we need to do something different.”

She suggested a recruitment system where forces created a pool of recruits selected on merit that were then appointed on representation.

“It is a political judgement, isn’t it? How important is this? If it’s important, then I think you need to look at a different approach,” she added.

In December, a Liverpool employment tribunal found Cheshire Police was guilty of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, race and gender after a potential recruit claimed he was rejected because he was white, male and heterosexual. 

Matthew Furlong, a 25-year-old physics graduate who applied to be a constable in 2017, discovered his application to join the force was rejected because the force needed more diverse candidates.

Judge Clare Grundy said positive action toward recruits from minority ethnic backgrounds should only be applied to distinguish between candidates who are equally qualified for the role. However, the tribunal found the force had set the interview pass threshold “artificially low”, and this meant many potential recruits were deemed equal when they were not. As such, the force had actually used positive action in a discriminatory way. 

Sandra Kerr, race equality director at Business in the Community (BITC), told People Management employers hoping not to fall foul in similar cases should build clear narratives around their talent shortages and how targeted recruitment is “actually about balancing clear representation” in their organisation.

She acknowledged that having clear, rational data of representation at different levels, setting diversity targets, and tracking progress could be a “big challenge” for employers. But, having that narrative and data could help evidence a case for why an individual was given a role when someone claims they unfairly missed out.

“It’s looking at what the demographic is now and the distance to travel to get representation right in your business,” Kerr said.

Claire McCartney, diversity and inclusion advisor at the CIPD, highlighted how employers focused on diversity and representation should also work towards building an inclusive workplace culture. “If employers aren’t focusing on inclusion, employees won’t feel supported so they will leave, and that in turn results in more recruitment to fill their roles which costs money,” she said.

The police force is not the only UK institution struggling with diversity. Recently, the Bank of England reported seeing a disproportionate number of ethnic minority staff leave the organisation. According to minutes from a directors’ meeting in November, black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff are under-represented across all levels of the bank, and the BAME resignation rate was above that for the bank as a whole. 

The director found exit interviews had identified no clear theme for the rise, but employee surveys found sentiment “tended to be less favourable among BAME than non-BAME colleagues”. 

Dan Robertson, director of inclusion consulting company Vercida, said organisations noticing attrition patterns without a discernible reason should consider what they are “signalling at a micro-level”. 

“Leaders need to pay attention not just to overt discrimination but also pay attention to any smaller signals they are giving employees,” Robertson said. He added there could be a “fundamental disconnect” between business leaders and their employees from BAME groups. 

“It’s not about introducing new policies because you can have all the policies in the world,” Robertson said. “It’s about questioning how you create an inclusive work environment on a daily basis.”