Are HR recruiters creating barriers to diversity – even for HR roles?

Guest blog by Karen DeBono, HR Manager – actively seeking UK employment

Aren’t HR skills transferable?

As a qualified professional, I’ve worked in HR for over 15 years as well as had numerous jobs in a variety of industries including cleaning, hospitality and retail sales.  I think I know about a lot of different jobs and different work environments, and I believed that regardless of the industry, my HR skills were transferable.  

From the time I completed my Bachelor of Behavioural sciences degree, started studying employment law as part of my Masters degree in Human Resources Management and did all the required internal and external job training relevant to my HR roles, I can’t ever remember a lecturer or text book differentiating between how human resources is performed in a retail or manufacturing environment.

Sure, I understand that hospitality for instance may appeal to younger people, who may be wanting to undertake casual work to supplement their study or that construction work may appeal to males more than females and attracts skilled and unskilled people with varying levels of education and training. I also understand that there are likely to be differences in the work environment which have implications for health and safety, amongst many other things. 

I know how to manage these issues legally because I’ve worked with the relevant government legislation and have the training and people experience to assess jobs, attract staff, identify and manage risk, engage with people by communicating and collaborating with them and creating an environment conducive to personal development and well-being.


So, what’s my point? 

Well, I’ve been job seeking for a while, and it’s interesting to see some of the barriers I’ve encountered and heard about along the way…


‘Wrong sector experience’

Despite excellent feedback from recruitment agencies, I don’t appear to ‘fit the profile’ for many HR Manager roles (or HR Advisor roles for that matter).  Reasons given are usually because I’ve not worked in a particular sector or because I’m from Australia and ‘don’t have enough UK employment law experience’. 

Let me give you an example….Employment Agent asks, “Have you had any experience working in the retail sector”?   ‘Yes’, I said, “I’ve worked in many customer service roles and know the industry very well”. “Ah’ says the agent, “but have you worked in HR for a retailer”?  “Well, yes!” said I. “My most recent job was with a company that sold alarms systems, CCTV, locks and grilles to customers in its showrooms as well as through trade sales”.  “Ah” he said, “no, you need to have worked in an environment involving high volume sales”.  He went on to say that the company was also looking for someone with experience in high end men’s fashion.  Now despite what I considered to be logical protestations on my part the Agent said that because there were plenty of applicants that fit the specific description wanted by the company, it was unlikely that they would put me forward for the job.

He was very nice and went on to tell me that whilst he understood my frustration he was certain that I shouldn’t go to any recruiter for accounts staff or for sales staff because selection of the right candidate was dependent on the knowledge that the recruiter had of that specific industry. 

Superficially, this might seem like the case – because when I’m seeking staff to fill vacancies in the finance department I go to a recruitment agency that specialises in finance. However, this has less to do with the knowledge that the agent has of the industry but rather because the recruitment company attracts finance people and so I would expect to have a greater pool of people to choose from. 

I assume that all recruitment agents will have the transferable skills to work in any sector i.e communication skills to work with clients to determine needs based on the culture of an organisation, assessment skills to identify relevant skills and personality characteristics of applicants that will match the client’s needs and so on.  I do however worry whether some agency recruiters have enough knowledge of diversity to perform their role effectively.


‘We’re a family friendly employer, but please, don’t actually have a family! ‘   

Even where a candidate fits the bill experience-wise, I’m not sure ‘specialist’ recruiters are particularly diversity friendly – and many of them are far from family friendly.  

For example, I was recently made aware of an HR Manager who had two young children and worked as an L&D specialist for a major finance company.  She had years of specific HR experience within that sector.  When she sought to change roles, an agency refused to put her forward because she needed to take her annual leave during school holidays (not additional leave, just the usual entitlement) and another agency refused to consider her as she needed to leave the office at 5.30 because of the hours of her childcare provider.  At yet another interview, she was told over the telephone ‘we work hard, we play hard’ and ‘we’d expect you to work from 7am-7pm in busy times’.  

All of these businesses who were recruiting for HR professionals gave lip service to offering flexible working patterns – but the specialist agencies she approached were not keen on putting her forward for any of the roles due to what would seem to be reasonable requirements.  HR, it seems, can lead the way for other teams to be diverse, but perish the thought that diversity actually applies to the HR team…


‘The CIPD may be international – but we prefer people who are from the UK’

The issue of race is yet another barrier to employment in a HR team.  I’m white Australian! (I was actually born here but this is another story)!  Whilst there are some differences between UK and Australian employment law e.g. UK law tends to be a little more prescriptive, or Australia has a plethora of different Federal and State statutory instruments, we share Common Law.

Our professional bodies for HR professionals recognise this. The Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) and the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) signed a mutual recognition of professional agreement in 2013 after mapping two sets of highly regarded professional standards and membership criteria (  Interesting then when I spoke to a Recruitment Agent with a lovely name that sounded very similar to mine, she told me I needed to be CIPD trained.  When I told her “I have Level 5 CIPD accreditation” she said “having CIPD accreditation isn’t enough, you need to be trained with CIPD in the UK”.

I tried to explain my Agency experience to my partner, who works as a Carpenter/Builder thus – “….It’s not too dissimilar to say that you can’t install kitchens in a house because you only have the experience of installing them in a flat”.


So why aren’t the ‘diversity champions’ actually championing diversity?

I’m told (by recruitment agencies) that some industries are worse than others – however with this kind of attitude, how can businesses drive performance and growth for the future, let alone meet diversity requirements?

As an experienced HR Manager, I’m obviously concerned at the poor practices I’m experiencing first hand.  I have to ask whether this is symptomatic of something else, and exactly who is driving this agenda?  Is it just the agency recruiters making independent decisions, or are they simply ‘following the rules’ set by their masters?  

If it’s the latter, then I’m embarrassed for the HR industry’s professional reputation. 

We are supposed to be the champions of equity and diversity.  

With the Government’s requirement for gender gap reporting, many HR departments will be required to conduct job comparisons to identify work of equal value: I’m not convinced that we have the skills within the industry to do this.  

In my experience, we can’t even recognise transferable skills and manage to promote diversity within our own occupational group – and that, in my opinion, would be a good place to start.



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