Words matter. When someone is reading an advert for your board role, they should be able to gather an impression of your values and culture, understand what kinds of skills, experiences and perspectives you are looking for and figure out whether they would be a good fit.
Is that happening? Are they getting a good impression of you and your board? From our research, often the answer is sadly, no. We’ve now advertised over 3,000 vacancies and we regularly hear from candidates who for one reason or another have felt put off by the wording of Non-Executive Director adverts.
So, here’s five examples of wording that we know candidates find off-putting.
#1 “regardless of…” For example “Applications are encouraged regardless of age, disability, sex, gender reassignment, sexual orientation, religion and/or belief, marriage and civil partnership and pregnancy and maternity”. To many this sends a message that you are welcome in spite of your [insert characteristic]. This is equivalent to saying “we don’t see colour”. Even if meant with good intentions, it shows a lack of recognition of the benefits of having people from different backgrounds on your board and a lack of awareness of the advantages and disadvantages faced by different communities. If you recognise certain communities have, to date, been discriminated against, you’ll recognise they may need additional consideration, support or encouragement to consider joining your board.
Very simply changing the words “regardless of” to “from people of all backgrounds, including” the message changes and suddenly a person with a disability reading the advert knows they are not just welcome in spite of having a disability, but actually because they have a disability.
#2 “We welcome applicants from those we know are underrepresented on our board”. You’ve put all the onus on the candidates to work out what types of people are under-represented on your board. And let’s face it, even if your board members are visible on your website, very few of their attributes will be visible from a quick glance. People might make assumptions on gender, or ethnicity, but will they be able to spot that all the board members are from similar socio-economic backgrounds or all have similar professional backgrounds?
We’d recommend explaining what areas you know you are under-represented in. And don’t just mention diversity characteristics; also mention skills (e.g. tech), experiences (e.g. working in start-ups), perspectives (e.g. the generational mix). You may not find someone who addresses all those areas, but you’re certainly going to encourage more of those candidates to feel genuinely encouraged to apply.
#3 “We want to improve the diversity of our board”. Without any explanation of why, this statement can seem like an empty box ticking exercise.
Try saying it in your own words. Why are you trying to improve the diversity of your board? To improve representation/ understanding of one or more of your stakeholder groups (e.g. customers, employees…)? To avoid groupthink? To become more creative?…
#4 [Say nothing] and just hope diverse people apply. This happens more than you’d think. We’ve even spoken to search firms who have been specifically asked to encourage applications from candidates with certain diversity characteristics, but haven’t mentioned that on their advert for fear that they will publicly fail to deliver.
Be honest. If you want to improve the mix on your board then say so! It will encourage applications from those groups and ensure that you don’t end up with a tokenistic process where you are choosing between a relatively small number of people.
#5 “We are looking for candidates with senior experience”. “Senior experience” is incredibly vague. It means very different things to different people. Many candidates have a lot of preconceived notions of what types of people can be Non-Executive Directors: perhaps, for example, retired CEOs. They might count themselves out because of their own definition of ‘senior experience’ when they’d be exactly the type of person who could bring a lot of value to your board. For example, a CTO (Chief Technology Officer) of a start-up might bring tremendous value to your board, but might count themselves out as they think “senior experience” means an executive in a large corporation.
Use precise wording. If you want someone who is accustomed to strategic decision making, or someone who has managed teams of more than 50 people, or a budget of more than £Xm, say so. If however, you have a board of ex-CEOs with c. 40 years career experience each, then say that you welcome people who have the ability to support strategic top level decision making, but are earlier on in their careers and will perhaps bring a different generational perspective.
Want more positive tips on how to advertise your board role to encourage under-represented groups to apply? Read our blog here.
If you’d like our help with your advert wording, get in touch at email@example.com.