Bad practice in recruitment is as much a problem in the museum sector as in any other. But reform is happening, thanks to campaigning groups that advocate more equitable practices, including the Museums Association and Fair Museum Jobs.
One development that has helped to level the playing field has been anonymising applications. Stripping a job application of any data that can imply certain characteristics of a candidate (such as their name, address, years in education and the names of educational establishments attended) can help remove sources of bias by which the interview panel could consciously or subconsciously discriminate.
Cornwall Museums Partnership (CMP) supports a network of more than 70 museums across Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The organisation has started recruiting on a value-led basis and uses a task-based methodology.
“We ask questions designed to help us understand applicants’ values, as well as their skills and experience,” says Charlotte Morgan, collaborative programmes manager at CMP.
“Most recently, we didn’t ask any questions at application stage – except those needed for right-to-work checks – and set a task to complete, which was presented to the interview panel anonymously.”
A recently appointed member of the team through CMP’s task-based methodology shared their feedback: “I loved the task-based shortlisting – I felt this allowed me to immediately play to my strengths, rather than my weaknesses. It was reassuring that my disability wouldn’t be taken into consideration. The process couldn’t have given me a better introduction to the values of CMP – a great first impression of an organisation and what it stands for.”
Time is another area where employers can demonstrate that they value and respect applicants. For example, for applicants who work full-time and/or have caring responsibilities, a job application closing date at 5pm on a Friday is difficult to meet – extending it to a Monday will rarely have an impact an organisation’s processes.
Zoom interviews can generate sources of bias absent from traditional on-site interviews
“We’ve been grateful to our networks for making us aware of different biases – for example, moving applications away from platforms such as Microsoft that need subscriptions,” says Morgan.
CMP included a commitment to equity and inclusion at the start of application forms, published the interview dates, and provided choices for applying in written or video formats.
It also made sure applicants were aware that they could claim expenses for travelling to interviews. The interview stage is where subconscious bias can creep in. CMP is considering bias training for all interview panellists.
“Recognising assumptions you have as harmful to others is a long and difficult process,” says Morgan. Zoom interviews may be the new norm but they are not a cure-all, and penalise the digitally excluded.
“We broadly support the rise in recruiters accepting video or audio applications, as it opens the field to candidates who might not have the same written communication skills as others,” says Tom Hopkins, one of the co-founders of Fair Museum Jobs.
“But video applications will be harder to anonymise. And Zoom interviews can also generate sources of bias absent from traditional on-site interviews: the candidate’s backdrop; a lack of dedicated workspace in their own home; and the speed of internet connection and personal devices.
“At some point, a balance will have to be reached – but we’re not quite sure where that is yet,” says Hopkins.
Curating for Change, a scheme run through Screen South’s Accentuate Programme to get more deaf and disabled curators into the museum sector, launched last year. Recruitment practices are often mentioned as a particular barrier for disabled members of the workforce, including not allowing flexible options for being interviewed or complex online forms that prioritise qualifications over transferable skills and experience.
“During the development phase of Curating for Change, we consulted widely with deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people,” says Esther Fox, Curating for Change project leader.
“They sadly confirmed what we had suspected was the case – that the barriers for them in pursuing a career in museums were multiple and complex.”
But the outlook is positive. “The museums we are working with are going on a journey with us,” says Fox. “The will is certainly there, and once the programme is up and running, there will be many good examples.”
Publishing guidelines and policies so that candidates can know what to expect from the recruitment process, is a good first step.
Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist