Sunday, October 9, 2011

Promises, promises.

Strictly speaking, I'm disabled. You wouldn't know it to look at me, but I am. This entitles me to a disabled person's railcard, which is nice, particularly for the person holding my hand, who also gets a third off their fare. I can't drive, so it seems fair enough.

The other thing it entitles me to do is to check the disabled box on job application forms. Where employers use the Two Ticks "positive about disabled people" symbol this means they have made five commitments regarding employing those with disabilities. They are certainly well meaning, aimed at increasing access to employment for disabled people, general awareness of disability issues at work and communication about these within organisations. However, to be meaningful, they must be in some sense verifiable and enforceable.

The first commitment is "to interview all disabled applicants who meet the minimum criteria for a job vacancy and to consider them on their abilities". The action itself is verifiable, dependant upon the condition of meeting the minimum criteria, which is potentially more open to interpretation. It is this one that concerns me, and more of it later.

The second commitment is "to discuss with disabled employees, at any time but at least once a year, what both parties can do to make sure disabled employees can develop and use their abilities". Discussing once a year is certainly an objective measure and a worthy one, though there is no guarantee that anything positive will come of it. Communication is a good thing, so we won't knock it.

Number three is "to make every effort when employees become disabled to make sure they stay in employment". "To make every effort" is pretty meaningless, it's certainly not a phrase that could be objectively verified. You could always do more, and you could probably do less and still claim you made every effort. Verbalising intentions does increase the likelihood of their being seen through however, so not necessarily a bad thing.

The next commitment states "to take action to ensure that all employees develop the appropriate level of disability awareness needed to make these commitments work". "To take action" means to do something. I suppose something is distinguishable from nothing. "To ensure" would be better (and ensure being a verb, action is integral) . Why "take action to ensure" rather than "ensure"? To make it vaguer, less meaningful, less enforceable. As for "the appropriate level" - that's highly arguable too.

Finally, "to review these commitments each year and assess what has been achieved, plan ways to improve on them and let employees and Jobcentre Plus know about progress and future plans". To review, to assess and to let know are demonstrable and hopefully do make some difference.

Clearly, the more meaningful a commitment is, the harder it is to achieve. No news there. But a commitment to motherhood and apple pie is still "A Commitment". Good PR.

Where this relates to me is the question of whether I meet the minimum criteria for the jobs I've applied for, whether the minimum criteria are actually open to interpretation and conversely, whether objectivity and mechanistic reading of applications actually makes it easier to exclude on a technicality those you don't wish to interview.

I've applied for a lot of Teaching Assistant jobs and got ten or so interviews. Some of these have been with authorities such as Brighton and Hove, West Sussex and East Sussex who are all committed to the Double Tick scheme. Others have been with Academies or other schools with independent employment policies, that don't apply this rule. I've got interviews for similar jobs in similar schools both where the policy applies and where it does not, meaning that I may have benefited from the policy in some cases but I have certainly been in the top five or six applicants in others. I've also not been invited for interview at some schools in all three of the above local authorities, in theory meaning that I didn't meet (or demonstrate that I met) the person specification.

Generally speaking, I think I both meet the minimum criteria and make a good candidate for interview for Teaching Assistant jobs and also do a good job of demonstrating this in my applications. This is born out by the fact that I've got interviews both in the three LAs above, and in Academies etc. Where I haven't got interviews with "Double Tick" employers, were the person specifications so radically different that I didn't meet them? Were they just worded subtly differently such that my application, though otherwise good, didn't check all the mechanistic boxes applied for fairness's sake? Were the so called "objective criteria" actually open to interpretation, or were technicalities used to avoid giving me an interview (because I wasn't actually one of the very best candidates)?

I have no objection to this. If there are five outstanding candidates and I make it to interview on the grounds of mere competence, I'm pretty unlikely to get the job and, other than honing my interview technique, I'm wasting my time and theirs. What I object to is meaningless commitments. I'm sure I'm competent to do most of the jobs I've applied for. I'm also confident of my ability to demonstrate this in writing. Whether I'm an outstanding candidate worthy of interview is another matter. So I can't help feeling that HR departments, faced with several outstanding (disabled or non disabled) candidates plus some merely competent disabled ones, won't want either to bump up the numbers coming to interview or abandon some of the better candidates simply to meet the requirements. So they interpret the supposedly objective person specification and what's written on the applications so as to exclude the merely competent and only invite the best candidates.

Getting interviews on the grounds of my largely irrelevant disability is good for my experience and in some ways good for my confidence - and there are other disabled candidates more in need of it than me. That doesn't stop it being a sham. Keep the meaningful parts of the policy, but don't make promises you can't keep. It only excites the Daily Mail tendency.

Any comments are particularly welcome on this controversial issue.

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