Levelling the playing field

When we appointed four candidates from our entry-level programme, The Scheme, last year, I was asked if I was disappointed that two of them had come through the more “traditional” Higher Education route, while “only two” had come from “different” backgrounds.

The idea behind The Scheme had been to recruit the marketers of tomorrow and reach people who may have never considered a career in publishing. We didn’t ask for CVs, qualifications or experience—instead we looked for talent and potential.

Disappointment couldn’t have been further from the truth. We had found four talented individuals, who each had come from very different backgrounds, and we had chosen them because of their skills and their ideas. Not for where or what they had studied. Those without degrees had performed as well as those with—and they have since contributed enormously to our company.

The Scheme showed us that we had unwittingly been missing out on talented individuals because of our focus on specific qualifications. So last week we announced that we were removing any requirement to have a degree from all of our recruitment processes; shifting the focus of our interviews and job descriptions, and training our managers to ask different questions and understand how their own unconscious biases impact their selection decisions. Together, these steps can begin to transform our internal culture right across our company.

We are not the only ones to realise this. Organisations in other sectors have been quick to embrace the understanding that having been through Higher Education in itself has no simple correlation with ongoing job performance, and that outsourcing the selection process to the education system might not be the only way—or the best way— to identify talent. If we are serious about attracting and retaining brilliant people to grow and shape our future, we need to be open-minded about where they may or may not have been before.

Since then, I’ve been asked: “Does that mean I’m unwanted as a graduate?”; “Does this mean more unpaid work experience?”; “Is this just a way to pay lower starting salaries?”; ”Is this lowering the bar?”

Again, the answer to all of these questions is very definitely: no. And I think it’s important to explain why.

For many, many people, pursuing a degree is the right route to go down. This is about being more inclusive; we’re not saying graduates aren’t talented, simply that to be talented you don’t have to be a graduate.

We’re now focusing much more on an individual’s potential, ideas and strengths. We are about understanding which skills are needed for a job, what it is that makes someone successful in that job, and then how we assess that. That will differ from role to role, but all applications from graduates and non-graduates alike will be welcomed and assessed on a level playing field. In my view, the obsession with requiring work experience from candidates is looking increasingly antiquated. Relevant work experience is valuable, but it doesn’t have to be unpaid—or in publishing. Would a candidate who has spent time working in retail, running a website or helping irate customers on a helpline bring transferable skills and a different perspective to our work?

Of course they would.

Maintaining standards

Publishing is a fantastic industry to work in—we are lucky to have, and have access to, hugely talented people. There is no need to lower our standards. We want people who meet our high expectations but who might previously have been put off by an arbitrary requirement or perceived barriers to a career in publishing.

And we shouldn’t wait for them to come to us. We need to be more visible to job-seekers—particularly outside of the M25—and we must make people aware of the breadth of careers that Penguin Random House offers. We are a place where anyone who loves books, ideas and writing can do the best creative work of their lives.

Other publishers have come out this week to say they do have people without degrees in their workforce. But how many of those are editors, publishers or part of the traditional publishing functions? Do our workforces really reflect UK society, where less than half of the population goes through higher education? And if we’re doing OK now, why has the general population responded so strongly to our news on social media? Just saying "we do this already" is as bad as turning a blind eye. We know we have a problem with socio-economic diversity in publishing, so let's start taking meaningful action to change it.

Attracting a broader mix of talent is only one step on the road to making us a more inclusive industry in the long-term. We need to properly integrate and nurture that talent so that people from different backgrounds want to keep working with us and have a positive influence on our future. To achieve that, we all need to change the way we make decisions, interact and behave well beyond the interview stage.

As publishers, our role is to seek out and champion author voices that appeal to the hugely diverse population of readers in the UK. Having more colleagues from different backgrounds will only strengthen our ability to do this, to think even more creatively about how to reach different kinds of audiences, and be even more ambitious on behalf of our authors.

Diversity is very easy to talk about. To make a difference you have to take action; to take real, tangible steps to change the way in which you approach a situation. The level of national debate this announcement has prompted during the past week only highlights how important this issue is. I hope that others within the industry will join with us to look creatively at how we make publishing—especially the frontline of publishing—one of the most welcoming and attractive sectors for the very best talent in the UK.

This is a positive first step.

Neil Morrison is HR director at Penguin Random House UK.