Photo of a woman standing and chatting to two other people
Image by Paul Blakemore.
Posted by:

Tony Bhajam Inclusion Producer

on Thu 17 Dec 2020

How we are reimagining recruitment at Watershed

Practical steps for making recruitment more inclusive, through more accessible and human experiences.

Over the last couple of years Watershed’s Inclusion Working Group has been exploring how to make our recruitment processes more inclusive – removing the need for specific qualifications, using clearer language, being clearer about access etc. This year we decided to take that further and began a series of experiments which will lead to an updated recruitment strategy. As part of this process we were fortunate to spend some time with Sue Emmas of Young Vic, who has been exploring practical steps to diversify their workforce over a much longer period of time.

In September 2020, the Watershed team were ready to recruit for two key roles; a Research Lead to head up our Research Team and an Environmental Emergencies Action Researcher to work across the organisation to explore how the sector can rebuild processes and policies to better address the Climate Emergency.

Amidst the excitement of preparing the application pack, some questions and tensions started to emerge about recruitment processes and how they can be made more accessible, human experiences.

We have shared our learning and thoughts here in the interest of transparency around the changes we are trying to make to be more inclusive. We welcome any thoughts and opinions you might have, please contact tony.b@watershed.co.uk and he will share them with the team.

First Thoughts

  • People have experiences which are not easily translated into application forms, how can we create comfortable spaces for them to share those experiences?
  • People’s existing professional and personal experience might not seem to be readily applicable to this role at first glance, how can we help people help us to join the dots?
  • Our work environment aims to support people to think carefully, explore possibilities and build knowledge. How can our interview process reflect the culture of our work?
  • Recruitment processes can feel cold and lacking in compassion, how can we bring warmth and a human touch to this process?
  • We cannot expect to have a greater diversity of applicants unless we change how we advertise roles and build our shortlists. What could that look like?

The team set about designing a possible new recruitment process to test out, built around the above considerations. This new process sought to centre the Applicant and create a warm environment for people to share the best of themselves with us, whatever that looked like.

As a team we are learning all the time. This response is by no means perfect, and we have generated a wealth of learnings which will be used to further refine recruitment in the future.

Our response

We built our response to the questions above around a few touchpoints which are common to most application processes, structures which we felt have been put in place for good reasons around accountability and fairness. This included advertising the role, shortlisting, formal interviews, scoring and feedback.

A new approach to the wording of the application pack

We were keen to further the diversity of lived experience within the team. We also believe that you should say the thing you mean and speak directly to who you are trying to talk to. For this reason, we approached the wording of the application pack honestly and with intent. The first paragraph read as follows:

“Our current  Creative Technology  team is majority white,  cisgender  and non disabled. We  believe our work will be stronger with greater diversity and  welcome applications from those who bring difference.  Watershed  welcomes  the whole person  to work, and we understand  that  each of us bring our experiences, our backgrounds and our own unique lens  to what we do. Supporting our staff means they are not appointed to represent specific groups or organisation.”

Organisations are normally very sure about what they need from applicants and from the role, this is not always translated into application packs and applicants can be left confused about whether their experiences are relevant or not. The team were keen that whoever filled the two roles could come from professional backgrounds other than their own, and that those experiences would bring new perspectives to the role.

Being open to professional and personal experiences in this way allows for people from a wider range of backgrounds and disciplines to apply for the role. In the spirit of speaking directly to the people you are trying to connect with, this approach was clearly outlined in the application pack:

“You may not have worked in a cultural organisation before, or in an organisation like Watershed. Perhaps you have worked in music, fashion, design or in technology – these are all very transferable contexts”

A refined approach to advertising the roles

Great care is always taken to ensure that roles are advertised as widely as possible. However, we understand that this is something to revisit often. If, as above, we are going to word our application packs to speak directly to people then we need to ensure that the role is advertised somewhere they might see it. We believe you have to go to where people are, not expect them to come to you.

The team took special care to build comprehensive lists of organisations, recruitment agencies, publications, websites and platforms who represented a range of communities underrepresented in the sector, including people of African, South, East, and South East Asian diaspora. LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people. Alongside this extensive list of organisations, the team created a list of over 30 individuals who could and were willing to, extend our reach far beyond our usual networks to ensure the opportunities were seen by people beyond our usual networks.

Expanding support and underwriting risk

We understand that having different lived experiences endows us all with different levels of confidence when approaching the process of applying for a job. Similarly, people who have more linear career paths or people who are better represented in the creative industries will have more experience of demonstrating how that experience is suited to the role. This was an inequity that we wanted to mitigate. For this reason we created a space for those who are from groups under-represented in the culture sector to come and connect with the team (those who were not involved with the selection process) prior to developing their application

“If you are from a background that is underrepresented in the culture sector (this could mean people from Black Caribbean, Black African, Black British or South Asian communities, did not go to University or had free school meals as a child), and you would like support to think about how your experience is transferable to this role, you can book time with one of our Producing team”

Meeting all of the eligible candidates

We understand that application forms do not suit everyone’s experiences, and that it can be hard to communicate the value of those experiences on paper. For this reason we endeavoured to meet all eligible candidates for both roles for a 20 minute (as informal as possible) chat before we shortlisted candidates for formal interviews.

In order to establish ‘eligibility’ we asked two key questions:

  • Could this person feasibly have the practical skills to carry out this role?
  • Does this person have a reasonable understanding of the subject matter for this role?

The team actively sought to be as open minded as possible, of the 17 applicants for the Research Lead role we met with 12 people, and of the 35 applicants for the Climate Emergency Researcher we met with 29 people. We asked people, in advance, to prepare to speak to us for 5 minutes about a piece of work that they were proud of. The team endeavoured to keep questions to a minimum, offering up two clarifying follow up questions, if needed, to ensure we had understood. There was also an opportunity for the candidates to pose questions, about the role, the organisation, or about us.

These presentations and conversations were illuminating, joyful, moving, and informative.

We believe that by the time someone progresses to formal interviews they could expect to be offered the role. ‘Wildcards’ sound great in principle, but interview processes can be stressful, and putting someone through formal interviews with little intention of offering them the job can be damaging.

Using the written applications and conversations together we shortlisted six candidates for the Environmental Emergency researcher role, and four candidates for the Research Lead role. We believe that both of these shortlists featured people who might not have been shortlisted had we not had chance to hear them speak about their experiences.

Providing interview questions ahead of time

In interview settings candidates field questions on the spot, under stress, and are forced to scramble for eloquent answers. This is the antithesis of how we want to work.

Watershed strives to create positive working environments, where staff have all the tools they need to do their jobs to the best of their abilities with adequate space and time to fulfil their roles. For this reason, we decided to provide the interview questions for the formal interviews ahead of time, allowing the candidates time to consider their responses, and answer fully, drawing on all of their experiences.

Representation on the interview panel

We believe that being able to see your own experiences reflected in an interview panel creates a safer, more welcoming environment for an interview. A richer diversity of lived experiences in an interview panel also helps to reduce biases in decisions.

This was considered carefully as we put together an interview panel (of mostly external people) with a real depth of expertise in the subject area of the roles. The panel were rigorous in how they made decisions, working to ensure that the job description, questions, criteria and discussions had integrity throughout by using a very structured table of scores.

Providing personalised feedback

After crafting a personable and human approach to shortlisting and to the formal interviews it felt only natural to follow through with a human approach to letting people know their applications had been unsuccessful. This meant taking the time to collate and provide personalised feedback for all eligible candidates highlighting the candidate’s strength, but also providing honesty about where we felt there were gaps in their experiences, or where others in the process has considerably more experience to refer to in their answers.

This approach was time consuming; shortlisting chats took over a week. However, the chats were incredibly valuable in ensuring that relationships are kept for when future opportunities arise, and that people’s confidence is not flattened by engagement with us.

Candidate Feedback and Thoughts for next time

“It felt like a generous way to improve inclusivity and accessibility. I hope it proves manageable for you as an organisation to work with this model in some way going forward.”

“I thought the recruitment process was open and transparent, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to speak to you in person. It might have been nice before that meeting to have an idea of any key concerns you might have had about my application, as you asked a fair question and with a bit of thought I might have been able to provide a better answer and/or chosen a piece of work that addressed that particular concern.”

“I just wanted to say that the way you are conducting this entire interview process should be the way every sector does it. I really believe often, potential fantastic candidates are missed out because they don't necessarily 'look the part' on paper. Starting with a longlist and giving everyone the chance to just stand in their best, seems very just and fair to me”

“I liked that the application wasn’t CV based and the informal zoom chat was very stress free and welcoming. Most of all though I appreciate the quick turnaround in holding interviews and letting people know the result.”

Tony works with Watershed as an Inclusion Producer on Bristol+Bath Creative R&D to support more inclusive practices across the region's creative sector and, with our partners, we will now be exploring how the learning here can be applied more widely.