DiO workshop Day I: Celia Roberts

16 09 2009

Celia Roberts kicked off the first DiO session with a keynote on how ethnic diversity gets squeezed into institutions, in particular during job interviews. What exactly goes on in these interviews? Why do ethnic minority groups have persistently lower success rates during job interviews?

Many companies nowadays use “competency frameworks” during interviews. For instance, one of the five competencies that were used during the selection of junior management positions in a large British corporation was the notion of ‘taking ownership’. This a somewhat vague concept referring to ‘skills’ like

  • owning up to responsibility for a manager’s impact on team performance;
  • maintaining high personal standards;
  • being honest about personal strengths, etc.

The rationale of competency frameworks is that it looks structured and fairer (“equal opportunities”) than questions such as “why do you want to work here”. Paradoxically, these frameworks produce disadvantages for candidates because they assume mastership of a register that is foreign to many applicants.

Job interviews blend three discourses: analytic talk, work-based talk and personal talk. These discourses are embedded and evaluated in a bureaucratic routine (it has to fit a certain ‘box’). In addition, there is a particular penalty associated with the interview that is inherently linguistic (cf. Bourdieu’s notion of ‘linguistic capital’). ‘Taking ownership’ is one such example of an abstract formulation that has been judged a suitable competence.

Crucially, some ethnic groups do not have access to these forms of linguistic capital and hence are almost systematically unsuccessful at job interviews. Celia looked primarily at low-paid jobs using an interactional sociolinguistic approach and video recordings of 76 interviews.

Celia’s data really drove home how successful candidates blend discourse modes (“customer-focused, deadline driven, “) and manage specific narrative structures (eg. the STAR structure – Situation, Task, Action, Result). Celia also looked at management interviews, in particular how some narratives are judged “acceptable” and others are not. Interestingly, successful candidates blended direct quotations with subtle, vivid and economic descriptions that display (analytic) agency and “responsible”, “professional” identities. Unsuccessful candidates used verbatim quotations and did not use self-evaluative descriptions.

So, if job interviews are indirectly discriminatory, one solution is to get rid of job interviews and substitute it with trials and more active mentoring for aspiring managers. Alternatively, educational materials in which the implied conversational rules are explained could be produced (e.g. DVDs).

“Job interview”, Flickr.com (Susanne13)


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