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Is it ever OK to discriminate during recruitment?
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King’s College London has recently announced that they will be offering roles to women before men. It might sound odd, but this is actually an example of how an employer can discriminate against candidates – but why?

It might sound like it’s creating an unfair process, but when you look into their reasoning, the situation becomes a little clearer.

It all started with a report on women academics earlier this year which stated that King’s female academics earned ¬£10,000 less than their male counterparts on average, about 18.2% lower. Following this, a petition was started pressuring the University to initiate plans to close the pay gap.

What came out of this is the news that they will be taking a big step towards closing the pay gap between men and women at their University.

But is the way they’re going about it legal? Can they choose to prioritise someone of a specific gender over another?

What the law says about recruitment

The law for recruitment, and any other area of employment, states that you cannot discriminate based on protected characteristics such as age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religious belief etc. But here they seem to be doing just that.

However, the law that covers candidates against discrimination also allows for what is called ‘positive action’. And in these instances, it is fine for businesses to make decisions based on certain protected characteristics.

It’s all based on ‘under-representation’ as we have seen in the instance of King’s College here. The idea is for an employer to alleviate the under-representation of employees who have protected characteristics by giving them preferential treatment during recruitment.

Therefore, what King’s College is doing is perfectly legal. However, this doesn’t just mean they’ll pick a worse candidate because they’re a woman, they will in fact be looking for those of ‘equal capability’ and in those instances will pick the female candidate first.

It will obviously be difficult to gauge who is of ‘equal capability’ during the recruitment process, as no two candidates have exactly the same strengths and weaknesses, so conducting thorough interviews will be key for them. After all, capability for a role is not just about experience, it’s about attitude.

This might be simple for an organisation like King’s College, who have the time and resources to conduct these interviews. But for a small business where time is tight what can they do should they want to address an imbalance in their workplace?

Good interview process is vital

As mentioned, a thorough interview process is essential. Instead of just simply correlating CVs against a job description, a good interview will help you to ensure that a candidate is really up to the role you are offering. We suggest a fairly loose, but structured questions process as follows:

  1. Make sure they have the right set of skills for the job – fact-checking against their CV and other past experience
  2. Make sure they have the right attitude – as mentioned, experience isn’t everything, do they have the right attitude to succeed in your business?
  3. Ensure they are in the right place to take the job – this covers simple things about their current situation with their job etc., but avoid personal questions regarding marital status and other such information to avoid compromising the interview process and getting into hot water

Taking the time to consider your recruitment process is vital – especially for a small business, where a wrong hire can be really costly.

So, as we can see, choosing candidates based on protected characteristics can – in certain instances – be legal. However, this doesn’t mean that the recruitment process should be any less rigorous, as mistakes can be costly – not just if you break the law, but also if you hire the wrong person.

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