Class diversity and think tank recruiting

Earlier this year the IEA participated in a roundtable organised by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and RECLAIM, specifically looking at the perceived underrepresentation of people from poorer socio-economic or working-class backgrounds in the charity and think tank sectors. The aim of the project was to measure the issue and consider ways of improving outcomes. The three actions requested of participants post-event were:

  1. To collect and publish data

  2. Publicly set out ambitions and priorities for improvement, and

  3. Collaborate with others once a year to share best practice.

The starting point for the IEA on this is that liberal concepts of fairness are rooted in treating individuals as individuals, not the aggregated sum of their assumed, claimed, or actual identity traits. The hiring policy at the IEA for example is set out in the DG’s preamble to our employee handbook as:

“I strongly believe in hiring brilliant individuals and enabling them as best I can to achieve great things.”

It is underpinned by a dignity at work policy, the diversity aspect of which is:

“We welcome a high degree of diversity at the IEA. We have staff and interns of all backgrounds, from all over the world, with different ideas, skills, and approaches. This is the result of merit-based selection. The IEA does not support diversity quotas. We regard them as a form of discrimination that undermines merit. We will comply with the law, but we do not support compulsory identity-based targets or identity-based reporting ratios.”

This, and related dignity-at-work policies speak to strongly backing action to deal with evidence of unjustified discrimination against people for any reason. It speaks to action three (sharing), but not action one (measurement), and this blog post is our response to action two (public statement). We will continue to hire brilliant individuals, whether as interns or staff, regardless of their background. The aim is fair treatment, not special treatment, and the outcome we seek is hiring the best thinkers, communicators, and facilitators of both to support our mission. We support diversity, but as a driver of better thinking, not as an end itself. We believe we’d be a weaker think tank if we only hired PPE graduates from Oxford who went to fee-paying schools due to the wealth of their parents. We act on that belief.

To prove the point should I now list out case studies of staff with such backgrounds? Clearly not, even anonymised, with around 30 staff it would be identifiable and a gross invasion of their privacy. It would further be potentially offensive to suggest that the job their parents did when they were 14 (the main recommended test) makes them either disadvantaged or a better employee. People are free to make such claims for themselves. I for example will note the time I spent living on a council estate and working for a northern manufacturing company has helped shape my thinking. I’m indirectly influenced by my Germanic heritage as a third-generation asylum-seeker. But I’m also a PPE graduate from Oxford who got into a selective school with a part-bursary and had two public sector professionals as parents.

I’m not sure what that tells you or a future employer about me that’s more relevant than reading my CV, reviewing my work, and interviewing me. Largely it’s likely to have triggered several assumptions and stereotypes in your mind, which is an issue if the problem the campaign is seeking to resolve is an assumption of unconscious bias in recruiting. There is then no good substitute for treating individuals as individuals, and treating problems of assumed bias with a degree of caution, particularly in small organisations where sample sizes are inevitably very small. I’m not sure, for example, that a pending bias towards people with Welsh heritage in a part of the IEA is an issue, and entirely certain it’s random.

There are other issues. Diversity reporting is by nature arbitrary and inexact. Race and sexuality for example are a spectrum of traits, not one thing. The extent to which that is also true of gender is a current controversy. Religion and ideology are choices we make for ourselves as adults, however much influenced by our parents. Class reporting measures an approximation of assumed disadvantage that may be entirely wrong when applied to specific individuals. You can look at the Labour front-bench as a good example; the worker’s party is no better at promoting worker talent than it is at selecting ethnic minority or female leaders. No doubt several though, including Sir Keir Starmer MP KCB QC, might tick a box in the Social Mobility Commission survey.

It’s also unclear what success means in ratio reporting. We’re a UK think tank, based in Westminster, with global reach, that runs a network of European partners. What class mix should I be aiming to achieve based on that profile? London? The UK? Europe? The World? What does class even mean in trans-national comparisons? If staff that tick the parental disadvantage box begin to dominate our staff body, should I then be seeking more Old Etonians and children of peers? I’m again unclear how applying this lens to our hiring practices and then reporting on it leads to fair treatment.

It sounds to me more like the path of alleged illegality pursued recently by the RAF, where you end up treating some categories of people unfairly in order to address an historic imbalance. You also encourage dishonesty, if there is advantage to be had in identifying in a certain way, and verification is both hard and subjective, then we might expect a rise in false claims. There’s little positive about positive discrimination if you believe in liberal concepts of justice. Hire talent, inspire talent, and change will come. But you should never turn away the best candidate to hit a target for your annual report.

The utility of which is at any rate questionable. Like gender pay gap reporting and think tank funding, prior data exercises have been used by campaigners to attack organisations with which they disagree or dislike rather than achieve positive change. The targets further, for those entirely committed to adopting every popular EDI-campaign, will conflict, leading to a far from worthwhile debate about intersectionality and the hierarchy of disadvantage. What matters more: race, class, or disability? Something barely comprehensible or meaningful in corporations, let alone within a sector with an average number of staff of 4 to 5 per organisation.

What you can do in charities, if seeking rapid change without conflicting with employment law, is utilise internships and volunteering opportunities. The IEA for example has a Student Opportunity Fund, generously supported by several donors, that ensures we can provide support for those attending our 1-week courses, and separately a budget to support costs for 3-month internships. No two groups are alike, and if we detected an evidential concern of bias in our recruiting it is likely we’d be starting there. Many of our interns go on to become staff, having learnt the ropes and displayed their potential, in the best possible way. There’s a debate in the sector as to whether such internships should be paid, but it’s a trade-off rooted in funding. We can either give a lot of people an opportunity at cost, or a tiny number with wages. The former approach is more likely to diversify our workforce faster.

What a sector campaign could do to help those it perceives to be disadvantaged is create a youth talent pool from those backgrounds, offering training and support to help people prepare for CVs and interviews. We’d be happy to support such an initiative with staff time. An approach many bodies, including the current Governing party have used to transform their representation.  Are we certain ours is the best approach, and that our affirmative action data-gathering class-focused friends are wrong? Clearly not. But the test is in the quality of output, staff reputation, and what they go on to achieve, not ratio reports. On that basis I’m confident in the approach we’ve taken.


Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer, Company Secretary and Energy Analyst at the IEA. Andy is responsible for developing our people, all operations, and managing the reputation of the IEA, including for example over-turning the Charity Commission’s unlawful attempt to ban one of the IEA’s publications, and dealing with failed attempt to smear the organisation by activists at the same time. When not leading operations, Andy writes and comments on free market issues around energy and climate change, and occasionally general commentary. He was previously the Head of UK public affairs for the world’s largest chemical company and green energy advisor to the UK’s largest company. He has over 25 years of experience in strategic communications and the operations that support them in the business and think tank worlds.

3 thoughts on “Class diversity and think tank recruiting”

  1. Posted 28/09/2022 at 12:32 | Permalink

    Well put, Andy. Lots of good, sensible points

  2. Posted 06/10/2022 at 22:53 | Permalink

    Are you blind or just obtuse? Your whole team is white. So much for diversity of thought.

  3. Posted 01/08/2023 at 11:55 | Permalink

    This is a great article, that is relevant to every industry, company and government, not just in the UK but abroad. It should be mandatory reading to the HR diversity zealots and CEO’s who pander to the identity politics of the left. Well written and argued.

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