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Episode 1: Anna Gaik (Accent) on the topic of open minded hiring

"In the target group of Ukrainian refugees over the past year that we were also very intensely engaged with from Accent, we saw exactly the same situation, a lot of people uprooted from their normal situation - they are already losing a piece of their identity: their home, their habitat is gone, they are in another country, they don't speak the language - and the only thing they have left is their education, their profession, who that they were back then. That nostalgia."

"I have also very often seen the women who come to us with high diplomas, who end up only getting to the cleaning agency and are employed there. And the effect after a few years, how they resign themselves to that, how after a few years they are so resigned almost like ''yes now it's too late, now I can't do it any more...''. Their self-confidence really goes down like that.

[general intro]

>>> You are listening to Let's Talk, a podcast where the talking points consist out of impactful initiatives, strong support offerings, and participation as a catalyst for innovation. Your host is Bart Wuyts, CEO of the group Blenders and WEB, the incubator of inclusive workplaces and innovative strategies concerning entrepreneurship, sustainability and job placement, among others. <<<

[intro speaker]

>>> Our guest in this first episode is none other than Anna Gaik, general manager of Accent's foreign recruitment department. Talent placemebt agency Accent, one of the three largest temping agencies in our country, is working from February onward, only with anonymous CVs with no age indication. The aim is to make employers look at prospective employees with as open a mind as possible.

An innovative practice that seems to have been developed out of an urgency to make the Flemish labour market more accessible - and workplaces more inclusive. Time for a conversation about the needs of our work floors, the impact of concrete measures and the importance of pioneers. <<<

I actually found my way. I thought 'I am here temporarily', and that did play a very big role in that my frustration was not so high: I thought I am just going to find a temporary job where I can use my Polish. That is how I found a job, that is how my career went and I am very happy today of course but the career path I took is totally not where I intended to be. Now, for me, that actually went well because I discovered that I have talents that would not be used at all in my first, initial education. Just because of my upbringing: my parents are engineers, my sisters are engineers, my brother is an engineer,.... And what I do was just seen as 'soft', something you can do on weekends. But in the end, gradually I discovered that in myself so it worked out in the end.

But I did experience the 'what is all this here, what is happening here, from where this doubt?' I come from one of the two best universities in Poland - the technical university in Poland - and there was a constant question about whether the level is definitely the same [as the level here in Belgium].... That makes you.. that puts you in a position you don't really want to be in: you don't want to justify yourself all the time.

You have to go on the defensive for something you don't have to defend yourself for.

That's one thing.

Second, the day before yesterday - a friend of my daughter's is half-Chinese - we talked to her about something else, and she said 'my sweetheart is also half-Chinese, also lives in Belgium, was born here, but he has a Chinese surname'. And they notice it, they can really mirror each other, the person with the Chinese surname just doesn't get invited to interviews anywhere. They say among themselves 'you have a chance because you have a Belgian name' - and it's such a shame that these 23-year-old girls say that to each other! And they just have the same education...

So those are one of those things, which I have seen for a very long time through employment of foreign workers - because that is my main business - and which make me angry.

"I have also very often seen the women who come to us with high diplomas, who end up only getting to the cleaning agency and are employed there. And the effect after a few years, how they resign themselves to that, how after a few years they have this resignation almost like ''yes now it's too late, now I can't do it any more...''. Their self-confidence really goes down like that.

And now you are responsible for that business unit [foreign recruitment division], so if you now look ahead another 5 years or 10 years, what difference would you like to have made?

I want to make it abstract from foreign recruitment for a moment. Because if you ask me what the impact is that we aim for or who we actually reach, it's very simple: it's about everyone in society should be able to contribute to the economic system. That is actually the impact we want to achieve. Everyone should have the opportunity to contribute, more so: we need everyone today. We need every two hands so you just have to see how you deploy them. That's our big goal and within Accent we defined a dream 2 years ago - 3 years ago now - and that dream reads 'we embrace every talent and spark joy in their lives'. That's what we want to stand for and I think that perfectly explains the bigger goal we are pursuing. On the one hand, we want to bet on 'we embrace every talent', so that is very important in two dimensions. Firstly, everyone, but secondly, you sometimes have different talents in one person - and people are very often like in a tunnel. And that's what you also cited earlier, they forget those other talents. So there are two dimensions to 'every talent'. And the second part 'we spark joy in their lives' is a very important one: happiness at work. And not so much 'having fun at work', but really feeling satisfactionin what that you do. So again: your talent deployed correctly - at effectively your strength, and in a place where you feel you are growing, and where you can be the very best version of yourself. But happiness at work entails much more, and one of the things in it is belonging: feeling that you belong in the organisation. And you can only do that when you work in an inclusive organisation.

But that's not so easy for you I can imagine because you work primarily as a temp agency after all. So people are employed by you but each time for a client. So the belonging story is very double then.

How we approached it: in the first instance, we are also an employer. We also have 1,200 employees of our own. We actually decided that before we launch certain things externally like open minded hiring, we said that we are really going to look at ourselves first: how inclusive are we as a company, what do we need to do to attract different talents to us initially? One of the lessons learned from foreign recruitment - the department I lead - was: we have 150 colleagues in this department and almost all of them are colleagues who have a migration background, speak a language other than Dutch as their mother tongue,... These are the colleagues. And what do we notice? Through that shared experience, through the fact that they have also taken that step of moving from one country to another, we attract people with that background. On the one hand, the barrier of language is gone, but not only that. We find that the fact that they have both experienced something similar - our consultants and the candidate - makes them understand each other better. And that was actually a lesson learned. And that actually means that you always attract people who are similar to you, with whom you have a common ground.

If we want to attract other candidates, in other areas of diversity: age, gender, whatever,... neurodiversity... then the first thing we have to do is make sure we have those people internally to attract those candidates. And they also have the greatest power with our clients to translate the talents. So they are going to make sure that those people have more opportunities to be invited to the clients. Because they do have disadvantages: is it the language, is it very low self-confidence, poor self-esteem, cultural differences,.... So they have those disadvantages but having that person between the client and them with us compensates for that.

So I think that's what we did. We looked at which people we attract internally initially. And we also had to admit very honestly: we are not that extremely diverse either. We employ mostly young women, about 90% are young women of the same age, same kind of education, even same kind of personality (more extroverted).... We mapped that, and then we thought we should do something about that in the first place. And then if you ask me what our leverage is with our clients - because that's really the question: how does the candidate get to the client - two things: first of all, helping our candidates to properly map out their talents, really knowing what they want and helping that person discover that. And translating that to the client. And also, as a talent coach and as a job coach, making sure that process goes well. And helping the client in the onboarding, in the communication, in the integration of that person. That can be in there if, of course, you put the emphasis on that and take the time.

Because the intention is that, in the best case, that person stays employed there with the client. So that a belonging is also created at the client where that person is working?


We have already touched on it here and there, and important for the theme we are working on are the barriers to employment and specifically for people with migration backgrounds. Which threshold do you see as the most urgent to address?

I will turn the question around, what we very much like to do within Accent is instead of looking at thresholds and challenges, we look at the opportunities associated with them. If we look at the labour market now, we see that we are in a moment of incredible opportunity when it comes to diversity. We were never in such a luxurious position before: everyone is welcome, we just need to encourage it a little bit.

What is most pressing? I think everyone talks about that: language, education, degree, housing and you name it. But I don't know if that's actually an approach we want. I think the main thing we need to look at is what the opportunities are. And the opportunity is that there is incredible demand in the labour market and very little talent that qualitatively fits that, and quantitatively we are already facing shortages. So that's mainly the situation now. I don't know if that answers your question.

Of course it does, I completely understand what you are saying. In that sense, we are somewhat in a unique situation, we also notice that in guiding people to work along the channels as we work. But that does not take away from the fact that you have very recently taken an important step to remove name and some other details of candidates from CVs. Probably because you feel there are still barriers there, even today in a tight labour market?

Discrimination is a threshold. And that can relate to a lot of aspects. And we are also aware that open minded hiring and CVs without a name is not the only solution. I think it's more of a statement, and an exercise for clients: try to look at everything else first before looking at name or hometown or age. At least give the person a chance to introduce themselves because that's where it starts. When you say what is the threshold: I think maybe sometimes we don't have open mindedness. That companies don't - and I'm not going to say it's their fault, I also fully understand from where it comes: they are preoccupied with their main activity, often don't have time to look at things differently.... But we do want to invite companies to think differently, to look at things differently.

How have customers reacted to your approach in this way over the past few weeks?

Very positively. What I do have to say is that there was a period from September to January when we had a try-out and worked very intensively with 10 companies and built short feedback lines.

We generally have very positive feedback or customers who say 'for us, the difference is actually not that big'. We also have certain customers who have responded less positively, we are going to call it as it is. Not everyone is that enthusiastic about it, there we also knew that in advance so I think that was a conscious decision. Not everyone is at that point or not everyone agrees with that.

And how do you deal with that? With clients who are struggling with that anyway? Or are not yet on board with it?

Above all, we engage in conversation and dialogue. Where does that come from? What is the concern? Sometimes it is purely a misunderstanding of the whole process. Because as a company, you still have the final decision. And it does not mean that there is no pre-selection: we do, we effectively look at things that are practically important such as being able to get there, being able to communicate and so on. We just hide certain things that would otherwise be immediately obvious at first glance.

You just referred to the fact that you also attach importance to the fact that when you employ candidates with clients, you also follow them up during their time with the client and provide some job coaching once they have started work. The word discriminationwas mentioned a moment ago. I can imagine that this is not just a problem for an employer or HR department, but often also on the work floor. Is that also something you work on? How do you work on cultural sensitivity in the workplace where individuals end up?

I come back to the word inclusion here because I think that is the clue for everything anyway. You have two different approaches. You can say 'we're dealing with discrimination here or limiting opportunities' - that's a very pedantic approach where you're almost saying 'don't do that'.

But you can also start from inclusion, and of course that always starts with listeningfrom where it comes, and usually there is something there of not understanding certain things, fear or... those are those feelings behind that. What we are currently focusing on are training courses that we want to offer to our clients around diversity and inclusion in the workplace and that at different levels because I think you indeed have a process of attracting your talent, recruiting, onboarding and integration. And at each level you have different needs when it comes to inclusion. We start with that. With TalentLab - which is part of Accent – we offer training to companies.

Very often it is really purely about the conversation. Training is one thing, and that is rather structural, but often it is about real dialogue. Dialogue with people in the workplace. That's the reality, you can't look away from it. But for me, it's very often about understanding why.

If I would ask you what advice you would give to employers, we actually already have an answer to that: looking open-mindedly at every candidate and every opportunity, maybe there are other pieces of advice you think of?

I do think it's good to take the topic of diversity and inclusion away fromdiscrimination. That helps make it a bit less scary, to keep seeing that diversity has so many dimensions: it's not just about language and origin, religion, people with certain disabilities,... It's also about how you are in life, how you look at life.

And what I notice is that companies are afraid of losing their grip when they commit to diversity and inclusion. My advice to companies is to take a good look at what your core values are. What are your core values and what do you really not want to move away from? And often it's about things like being driven, being dynamic, quality,.... Those are values - that have nothing to do with certain target groups. Often, a certain target group is automatically associated with more or less of certain values. By clearly defining those values for yourself, you gain different handles than the ones you have so far - saying e.g. 'I mainly recruit people between 25 and 35 because I think they are more dynamic people, more creative and innovative',... I'm sketching an example very briefly now but I think that's a classic example. But in the core you want to go to dynamic, innovative and creative. Just let go of associations because you do have fiftysomethings who are very creative. That is my advice: really try to define the basic values and let go of the other criteria.

You also mentioned something a moment ago, where you say that you are unknowingly recruiting clowns of your own or at least people with a similar history or who have gone through a similar journey - you are recruiting them in particular because you quickly connect with them. And so the companies today, and employers in general, who say 'we want to focus much more on inclusion and diversity', should probably also look there: what's in our recruitment process that makes us attract mainly the same people?

And if you then look at the other side: the jobseekers, or people who may already be working but still feel that they are not in their place and are looking for another job, and especially then from our perspective people with a different origin, higher education, who feel that they have fewer opportunities here. Are there any particular pieces of advice you would like to give to these people?

I think it will almost be a boring answer.... If I'm going to take my own example: what helped me in that moment is to really do look at the situation again fairly open minded. And not tying myself to what I thought I wanted to do, but really just looking at what opportunities I have and what I get satisfaction from. In many cases we see of people with high education who have moved to Belgium, employment in specifically their profession was simply not possible. For example, I am talking about people who were lawyers in Syria. We have had such situations and they cannot be employed here - at least not immediately - as lawyers. But then you go back to the core: what are actually my talents? Look at your talents and your abilities rather than skills and profession (that is the traditional approach). Look at 'where do I still find fulfilment'? I think people often struggle with something like 'this is the one and only option I have, that is my identity, I am a lawyer and I want to be a lawyer again'.

In the target group of Ukrainian refugees over the past year that we were also very intensely engaged with from Accent, we saw exactly the same situation, a lot of people uprooted from their normal situation - they are already losing a piece of their identity: their home, their habitat is gone, they are in another country, they don't speak the language - and the only thing they have left is their education, their profession, who that they were back then. That nostalgia.

And then it helps to go back to the core for a moment and ask yourself what talents you needed for that and how you can use those talents differently. That does help in some situations.

And in your case, you may not have been aware at the time of a lot of your own talents that just emerged along the way. But by choosing a different path, you still managed to develop them somewhere. You had the guts to then say at that moment 'I may have done engineering studies but I'm just going to do something else and I'll find my way through other channels.'

Yes and mind you, in hindsight I must honestly admit that the circumstances also made it very easy for me because I thought it would be a temporary thing, I thought I would go back to Poland within two years and do my thing there. I mainly wanted to make sure that in that temporality I was socially active, that I was doing something, that I was learning something. And that helped me. But that's actually an attitude that I would almost like to see now in someone who also comes permanently to a particular place. And I don't know if I would have been able to do it 18 years ago if I had known then 'this is your end destination'. Maybe I would have looked at the job proposals I had completely differently. And not like 'okay, we'll see, it's only for a while anyway'.

That is an attitude that you see in many young people today: entering a job market where they don't start from 'this is for the next 20 years'. And the labour market today fortunately helps with that. If the balance of power has shifted somewhat towards the candidates, you have more luxury to say, for example, 'we'll do it and we'll see in two years'.

Yes, we call that a candidate-driven market.

Are there other things you would like to say around this topic? That maybe we haven't talked about yet?

I think we have discussed a lot of things. Maybe one thing. The whole topic of inclusion (because for me that is the basis of everything), requires a lot of vulnerability, a lot of reflection about yourself. Especially if you have to expose certain biases. If you have to see for yourself how you select, based on what, what exactly is at play. And it is important to know that that is completely normal: we all have biases. Really everyone has them. It's a process of becoming a bit more aware of them. It's not about the fact of that that is bad or good, or that it's allowed or not allowed. We have that: we are built that way, that's how our brain prepares us to make a lot of decisions in a short time, to be able to do that you have certain frames and you use them. And that's ok. It's just a matter of being more conscious of that.

Daring to see it in yourself, becoming aware of that, and then you can do something with it. If you want to see it.

By becoming aware of that, you just have a decision to make: do I want that or don't I want that? And that's something we also want to pass on to clients: be aware of it. And then if you still decide 'I'll do it this way', okay. But at least you decide consciously and don't do something you don't even know about.

And which undoubtedly happens very often today.

Thank you for the conversation.


>>> You listened to Let's Talk, the podcast where we feed the dialogue around inclusion in the labour market, highlight impactful initiatives and let lesser heard voices have their say. Were you captivated, did this conversation make you think, would you like to be one of our next guests yourself? Let us know, follow us on social media and be sure to subscribe to this podcast series!