“Talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not” – Clu Founder Joseph Williams discusses bias and discrimination in the UK job market

Joseph Williams (right) and Cayelan Mendoza, Clu Co-Founders

In an exclusive interview, Business Leader chatted to Joseph Williams, the Founder and CEO of Clu, about his experiences of bias and discrimination when trying to enter the UK job market and how his company, Clu is breaking down these barriers.

What is your background and what were you doing before founding Clu?

There are a number of facets to my experience, not just work and charity experiences but life events, all of which brought me to the knowledge base I have built the company on with my Co-Founder and partner, Cayelan Mendoza.

Going further back, as a child I found I struggled with my studies and traditional education. When I was a teenager, I went through significant trauma: my mother died and I was kicked out of home. Later, after my first job in a call centre, despite being hard-working, naturally gifted with numbers and strategy, and having campaign successes in the companies I worked for, I found that a non-traditional education route and neurodiversity kept doors closed to me.

After the tests I faced in my first roles, which painted a pretty clear picture of what work would be like for me, I became a business consultant, like many other neurodiverse and disabled people do, but gained vast experience working on projects like the first B2B product offering for News UK, Twitter’s SMB business in the UK and the launch of BBC Earth.

I met my partner Cayelan who had a similar experience to me struggling with the UK job market, despite arriving in the UK with the vast experience of starting his own gaming studio, because of a lack of university degree and the ‘right’ experience. We found support from each other and this lead us on to decide to create Clu to address the barriers to entry we faced, and that others like us face daily.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career and how have you managed to overcome them?

Taking accessibility to one side for a moment as we don’t have the time to unpack that fully, my biggest challenges, like so many, have centred around wellbeing in the working world and maintaining good mental health. I feel that things are improving, albeit very slowly and only for some people, but in British culture, we have traditionally had an aversion to talking about our feelings and for the vast majority, we are not educated in tapping into communicating how we feel.

Fifteen years into my career I realised that I had a bank of unresolved issues from trauma in my younger years that were significantly affecting my potential. So many people who sit in positions of leadership, particularly those who come from diverse communities, start from a place of ‘I’m not welcome here’ and have problems with imposter syndrome. There are triggers that exist within us, that we normalise not addressing to the detriment of our future journey.

I feel strongly that you need to take time to invest in your mental health and wellbeing as the symptoms may be subtle. The trigger for myself to get help was working in an organisation where I was being treated badly. I was facing people who were rude, I was being talked down to and there were microaggressions and sometimes explicit discrimination on a daily basis. The politics, the unnecessarily complicated processes, and the egos you need to navigate often in traditional workplaces left me feeling withdrawn and isolated.

In a past role, instead of being able to explain my confusion and ask for additional support, I was told by a HR manager to not make a fuss and disclose my neurodiversity, or my sexuality, if I wanted to keep my job and get ahead.

An inspiring conversation with a friend about the disconnects between what I was willing to accept for myself, as opposed to what I and everyone should expect in life led me to make changes that were transformative. It started a process of self-examination as to why I was accepting this and allowing others to treat me badly and I knew I needed to rediscover my courage and resilience.

I invested in a transformative coach called Sharon Clews who has changed my life and helped me to realise the trauma I hadn’t resolved and was carrying around, and helped me to find inner strength and power to stand up for myself and be the leader I was capable of being – we call this self-actualisation. Through positive empowerment and changing the narratives around your mental health as well as a supportive personal and professional network, you can create a paradigm shift in the way you show up for yourself and your life.

What are the current problems with the recruitment process and why is the CV outdated in the modern world?

An equitable job market is one that elevates everybody into opportunities they would be good at. One of the main problems with the current recruitment process is the focus on experience before skill. If organisations hire for experience instead of strengths and skills, they can never assess job seekers properly, because they’re looking at what people have done, instead of what they can do to determine if they are right or capable of succeeding in a job.

The CV is key to this problem. Across many other disciplines, we have embraced the value of more complex and meaningful data to produce greater, more accurate results. However, in recruitment, current interventions are not crafting ways to solve these critical issues, they are further entrenching them.

CVs are one of the most ineffective tools still being used by organisations today. Poor productivity, motivation and inclusion, high employee churn rates, and even the great resignation, these issues can all be traced back to one fundamental flaw in the way we continue to hire people. It has been found that 78% of people exaggerate, embellish or even lie on their CVs because they are manipulating their experience to fit roles they’re applying for. In addition, 80% of employees still don’t have the right skills for their jobs.

They are the biggest barrier to entry in recruitment as they are anchored to subjectivity and bias. But I’m not talking about the trope of unconscious bias. Far more insidious in the recruitment process are the selection and confirmation biases that manifest. Research has found that people from a wealthier background are nearly 80 percent more likely to secure jobs in ‘professional sectors’ than those from a working-class background.

Applicants with Asian or African-sounding names have to send twice as many job applications as those with a “British” name to get an interview. Women were also less likely to be invited to interview than men. This is clearly penalising so many talented individuals and is exacerbating the current social mobility problem and limiting access to talent pools so vitally required by organisations to sustain talent pipelines.

Simply put, talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not. If we start moving towards a more data-rich and actionable data set to underpin recruitment, we can not only make better and more accurate hiring decisions but can also start offering holistically better job seeker experience, onboarding, learning and development plans. The knock-on effects being enhanced long term outcomes such as retention, motivation, productivity, and innovation.

CVs aren’t working, and we need a new way of qualifying and making the hiring process work better for everyone. Accuracy, inclusion, and experience need to be the focus.

How can technology help overcome the problems in recruitment?

While other industries are rapidly adopting new technologies and machine learning, recruitment is clinging rigidly to the old ways of working that benefit neither job seekers nor businesses. Our vision in setting up our SaaS platform Clu was to dramatically increase the accuracy of job searches and in doing so, save businesses huge amounts of time and expenditure.

Technology can help in numerous ways including:

  1. Broadening hireable talent pools
  2. Improving role, job seeker and process data & insights
  3. Improving hiring team engagement
  4. Reducing churn and job seeker ’tissue rejection’
  5. Improving job seeker experience
  6. Improving the time to hire without producing additional costs

AI can be used to support the recruitment process by analysing the soft and technical skills of existing employees and informing talent teams where gaps are. Subsequently, AI could then be used to fill in the gaps intentionally, thereby creating a higher-performing, more balanced and cognitively diverse workplace.

Being upfront and determining what characteristics are required to succeed in a certain role allows companies to massively evolve their digital recruitment strategy, enabling them to make far more informed decisions about a job seeker over and above gut feel of whether they’re the right fit or not.

We built our platform Clu around displaying what job seekers can do, not what they’ve done to qualify them into processes. This helps to unearth the true potential in a job seeker and eliminates the risk of hiring based upon relationship, or prior experience.

All these problems with recruitment can lead to bad hires which cost companies money. With AI expected to create $13 trillion in value for businesses by 2030, there is a clear need to create a universally integrated job matching tool powered by AI to save businesses billions in failed recruitment.

What trends are you currently seeing within the rec-tech industry?

The recruiting industry has undergone significant changes within the last two years. From nearing extinction to seeing a six-year spike in activity and ‘recruiter’ job vacancies surpassing ‘developer’ vacancies for the first time in modern history.

The last year has been an interesting one for talent acquisition and recruitment strategies have had to adapt to change. We’ve had to manage a lot of uncertainty and found ourselves in a recruitment market that has been entirely turned upside down and so one of the major trends is one of change and adaptation. In a post-pandemic world, with remote working, decentralised workforces and talent shortages taking over, hiring practices that were the norm are beginning to look dated and ineffective.

However, the biggest and most significant change that we’ve seen in the world of recruitment is the shift to a people-driven market. For the first time in a generation, there are more available jobs than there are job seekers, and therefore the applicants hold more power than ever before. With so many employers in desperate need of the same skills and talent, job seekers have more options than they have in a long time and can also leverage more on salary and benefits. This means that recruiters and talent acquisition professionals will have to work harder to stand out and attract talent. The same tried and tested tactics may no longer be enough to win the race for in-demand talent.

Along with this power shift, job seekers can afford to be much more selective about the jobs they apply for. The days of applying for anything and everything, whether they meet the full criteria or not, in the hope of being successful are over. Now, job seekers can afford to be pickier in their job search as they know employers are desperately seeking skills they possess. This means they’re more likely to wait for a job they truly want, a culture that suits their work ethic and a company that excites them.

Despite some companies going back to the office and hybrid working becoming the norm, it’s quickly become evident that remote recruitment is here to stay. Some hiring managers are having to cast a wider net for talent to fill skills shortages and have therefore had to embrace remote work, but others are simply realising that virtual interviews and remote recruitment is a time-saving and efficient way of screening. Job seekers are beginning to expect remote work and remote interviews alongside this, at least at the first stage.

What future trends do you envisage for the sector?

Bolder employee value positions will be a vital factor. As competition for talent rises, employers are realising the importance of how both job seekers and existing employees perceive them. However, now everyone is embracing employer branding, there are only so many times a job seeker can hear that a business is a ‘great place to work’. Generic terms are losing meaning.

Employers will have to take a deep dive into their culture and decide not only what makes it unique but also the sort of job seekers that could thrive there. Companies that wish to attract talent will have to tailor their messaging to resonate personally. It’s time to be selective about the type of job seeker you want and who will thrive in your culture, which in turn will allow job seekers to self-select too.

The focus on retention is going to be a big trend moving forwards. Even if the ‘great resignation’ subsides, employers will still be trying to hold onto their talent in any way possible. With so many companies competing for the same technical talent, it’s increasingly difficult for growing businesses to match salary offers and the reputation of large-scale enterprises. Therefore, employer brand and refining people strategies are likely to come to the fore. Employers realise that recruiting to replace existing team members will postpone growth plans, especially if you consider onboarding times.

Another future trend will be a rise in data-driven recruitment. Where traditional marketing relies heavily on data and experimentation, recruitment marketing fails. Recruitment marketing is about ten years behind consumer marketing in the way we measure success and learn from data analysis.

Much like consumer marketing, digital campaigns can give insight into your potential job seekers and talent pool. You can use these insights to develop intelligent recruitment strategies that give you a competitive edge. These measurement tools are ready and waiting to be used, as consumer marketing teams have been using them for the last decade.

The mindset surrounding recruitment marketing needs to alter to favour data analysis, experimentation, and success measurement. If we can master this, recruitment marketing will become a much more exciting element of talent strategies.

What are your top tips for employers looking to make their workplace more inclusive?

A diverse company leads to rewards in so many ways, including increased creativity and innovation, strong company culture and improved employee performance.

But inclusivity is the vital first step to successfully supporting a diverse workforce: it’s all about creating an inclusive environment that welcomes and sets up each employee for success, anchoring your decision-making to their experience and not their demographics.

Far too often we see organisations focused on representation figures but not retention figures. For example, particularly when vulnerable communities are concerned, we categorically will not serve opportunities to candidates we know will not be set up for success in certain organisations. And we vet organisations carefully to understand how they intend to set up diverse talent for success.

Authentically reflecting on who you can currently, and meaningfully, support and then working towards making that a reality for everyone is key. The communities you’re trying to attract will respect your honesty more than being set up to fail.

What role can tech play in making workplaces more inclusive?

In the first instance, to avoid biased output from technology tools and predictive analytics when it comes to dealing with hiring for diversity and inclusion, it is vital that the data collected is reviewed thoroughly to identify and remove any biases prior to using it. Also, samples used to train the machines should always be trialled and modelled regularly and if need be, algorithms adjusted accordingly by experts.

Social interaction is going to remain the one area where humans will trump robots for many years to come. This is why also integrating bias-mitigation features to safeguard diverse talent in recruitment processes is also key. Workplace culture, diversity and inclusion are growing in importance, which is why it is more important than ever to not try and use technology to replace people but use the best parts of both to complement and hold each other accountable.

How is 2022 shaping up for yourself and Clu?

We started the company in 2021 and have had a very busy 12 months. After completing our meticulous research phase for the platform, we launched our beta pilots last summer with top businesses such as BBC Studios, TSB, Stryker and UKTV.

We used client-generated revenue from pilots to build Clu v1.0 and have gained several very high-profile advocates, like Lord Simon Wooley, along the way and have been lucky to have had some incredible and inspiring women join our Advisory Board. Director at Google Kia Christian, Hootsuite Chief Marketing Officer Maggie Lower, decorated Technical Strategist Jen Shorten, and Salesforce Senior Vice President Lalitha Stable are bringing their extensive tech, marketing, HR and diversity & inclusion knowledge to Clu.

We achieved B-Corp certification this year and our social mobility-focused employment programmes, currently supporting refugees and displaced people, disabled and neurodiverse people, young people and former offenders, are central to our commitments.

For every successful hire made through a talent partner, we reinvest back in their employability programmes. It is part of our social impact pledge to add 100,000 socially mobile workers to the workforce and reinvest over £5m in employability programmes over the next five years.

We’re currently on track to meet our year one targets. This fast traction is underpinned by ease of onboarding and a deep credibility and trust in our marketplace. But we’re only a small team, with no dedicated sales resource, so have recently launched a funding round to raise money for sales and marketing firepower to fuel scale-up capability.