Legal

Is the FA’s ‘Rooney rule’ the answer to business’s diversity issues?

26 Jan 2018 By Paul McFarlane

Football’s adoption of the NFL’s famous diversity rule is a positive step – but it shouldn’t be seen as a fix-all strategy. Paul McFarlane explains

A watershed moment in the fight against racism in football came recently as the Football Association announced that it will adopt its own version of American football’s ‘Rooney rule’. The principle, named after the NFL’s diversity committee chairman, Dan Rooney, requires all franchises in the league to interview at least one black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) candidate for every head coach or senior vacancy.

In 2003, there were just three BAME NFL head coaches. By 2017, there were eight. Between 2007 and 2016, 10 of the 20 Super Bowl teams had either a BAME head coach or general manager, whereas before 2007 there were none. 

The FA’s move comes after a difficult 12 months, in which allegations of racism have rocked the game once again. As a result, the announcement – part of a wider plan to improve its approach to diversity and inclusion – has been broadly welcomed by industry bodies including Kick It Out, the group that has long since lobbied for measures to tackle racism in sport.

Currently, there are only six BAME football league managers out of 92 professional teams (or just 6.52 per cent), a disproportionately small percentage compared with black footballers, who make up 25 per cent of all professional players in the country. Clearly, this is a positive step in trying to make football’s senior ranks more representative.  

One of the main criticisms levied at measures that are designed to improve diversity is that they are unfair and create an unlevel playing field. This rule cleverly side-steps any accusations of tokenism by emphasising that final recruitment decisions will be based on competency, rather than any need to meet quotas. The Rooney rule will provide at least one BAME applicant with the same chance as non-BAME applicants to explain why they should be given a senior role within the FA. If the experience of the NFL is anything to go by, this should result in a more diverse and inclusive FA without any dilution in the performance of those recruited. 

The adoption of the Rooney rule by the FA may have implications far beyond the world of sport. At the end of 2017, a CBI/Pertemps survey reported that 93 per cent of respondents thought having a diverse and inclusive workforce was important to the future success of their organisation – up on 76 per cent in 2016. HR departments will be under increasing pressure to come up with tangible measures to make their workforces more diverse and inclusive. Using the Rooney rule is one measure that employers could immediately consider. 

Yet the rule should not be seen as a complete solution to the diversity challenge. Flagship announcements such as this shouldn’t come at the expense of hygiene factors when it comes to diversity in recruitment. For example, it remains important to ensure that those involved in the recruitment process are encouraged to think carefully about any unconscious bias they may have when it comes to making appointments, and that formal training is provided when appropriate. 

Without tackling the most fundamental issues of attracting a diverse junior workforce, or players in the example of football, the principle of the Rooney rule will not get far beyond virtue signalling.

Tapping into the pipeline

A major challenge of improving diversity in the top ranks of any organisation is ensuring there is a pipeline of talent to access. This is itself a symptom of poor diversity policy at all levels of recruitment. In football, a concerted effort to give more opportunity to BAME candidates has shown that the pipeline is there if employers are willing to tap into it. Other sectors could learn a lot from how football has tackled this from the grassroots up. 

It is important for businesses that are keen to increase the diversity of their management to think long-term about how candidates move up the ranks. What do they want their BAME profile to be in three to four years’ time and where will the candidates come from? In most sectors, the big challenge on the diversity front starts from middle management upwards, so it is often here that the changes need to happen first.

With diversity and inclusion climbing up the agenda of most companies, employers need to ensure they have the range of strategies in place to select the best candidates regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion or background. The FA’s adoption of the Rooney rule is an example of a measure organisations can take to help them achieve this important goal. 

Paul McFarlane is a partner and employment specialist at Weightmans

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