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Episode 7: Sharon Augustus on norm thinking, inclusion and intake in Belgium and the Netherlands

"Often it's because people are embarrassed because they don't get it, because they haven't been included or because they themselves are left with an idea like - life was hard for me, it should therefor be hard for others too."

"What is the most beautiful holiday destination you have ever seen? - Even at job interviews, when people are very nervous, if I do that trick then you see that they turn in on themselves for a moment and go and find some peace and quiet. Because that must have been an incredibly beautiful place."

[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]

>>> In this episode, Bart Wuyts talks to Sharon Augustus. Sharon is 35, cisgender woman, born in Antwerp and she has been living in Eindhoven for a year and a half with her partner Robyn - to whom she is now happily engaged. Sharon works at the Eindhoven municipality as an intake specialist in inclusion and diversity. That is, she deals with internal vacancies for an organisation of about 2,300 people. In this talk, Sharon offers us a window into a reality in a neighbouring country that we tend to look up to quite often - as if they were miles ahead of us in the Netherlands. Stay tuned and immerse yourself in the wisdom and knowledge of someone who offers insights into both the Flemish and Dutch contexts.

What are you doing in Eindhoven today?

I support the recruitment team, I work on P&O: personnel and organisation so the operations in diversity and inclusion. I'm mainly on the intake and recruitment of candidates with a distance to the labour market - I have several target groups [for the Eindhoven municipality?].

For the Eindhoven municipality, yes. And it's actually super fun. I always used to think 'a municipality, it has such a stuffy and corny image, I'm not going to work there anyway – come on look at me'. But then I applied there, and there was a good click straight away. And you’ll find people like me there by the dozens. People who really want to do well, who really think from an intrinsic motivation, it's tax money: I want to achieve goals here, I want to move forward.

And, sometimes, yes, there is a bit of polarisation I think: we forget to connect or something - because actually we want the same thing. But the paths towards it are different and sometimes I think maybe I've been guilty of that too, of polarising further because I'm thinking in step 10 or step 11.... So people who have yet to start in step 1... Maybe we just forgot to tell a very large group of people why we want this [inclusion]. And, those are really hurdles that I only run into now.. [after being active in this field of work for many years]..

And do you then manage to do that in your environment somehow?

That's difficult. Because at LEVL or Minority Forum, you never have to explain why you do something. Or at a previous organisation, Kombisol, I didn't have to explain, because people were just super progressive. They are at step 3 or 4 and they want to go to step 10. I do find it particularly difficult to have to start taking someone from scratch in, say, an inclusion story or a diversity story. Because - and I don't have a migration background myself - I already find this exhausting to tell 100 times again why some participation things or the right of existence of some groups of people matters, it is about the right of existence and the right to participation! The fact that I need to advocate for the right of those people to at least equal opportunities: that's terribly tiring. And then I'm lucky because it's my job and I'm an advocate and I really like talking about those things, but I can imagine that not everyone always feels like it.

You do like talking about it, yet you say 'I do think it's a tricky one to bring people into it from step 0 or step 1?

Yes it very much depends on the recipients: whether they are open to it or not. And then I'd rather have someone who reacts super defensively and doesn't see it and then I'll just see that as a struggle and think 'just give it a try', than that people who say 'but there's no problem', 'I'm colour-blind, I don't discriminate'. Those people, I find that the hardest thing. And then you can go one-to-one on a real case-by-case basis and explore 'yes, but what is really going on?' or 'do you really not recognise yourself in certain examples?' But proclaiming something like that top-down or in a group just doesn't work - in my experience, it hasn't worked yet.

I hear you say that slowing down in that is very important and you need that one-on-one for that.

You need that one-on-one for that, because you really need to go at the case level almost of 'what's holding you back from going for those equal opportunities? And 'what's in the way?', 'really say what's on the table?' - really à la deep democracy: bring that fish up, put it on the table. And then we can take a moment to discuss why you reacted defensively. Often it's because people are embarrassed because they don't get it, because they haven't been included or because they themselves are left with an idea like ‘life was hard for me, it should just be hard for others too.' And I think that's such a terrible life stance, and yet I do hear it so often.

Still, yes?

Yes. Not just where I'm right now. I've been hearing that all my life. In a social system like in Belgium, you hear it less often because in Belgium we learned to take care of each other. We pay a lot of taxes for that so health insurance costs almost nothing: it costs 12 euros a month, while in the Netherlands my health insurance costs 160 euros a month - those are American scenes. And in the Netherlands you just have to struggle: life is all a bit harder there. People there are more likely to say 'yes life is hard, it should be hard for others too, because it has strengthened me'. And then I think 'yeah or it made you sound bitter..’

That's interesting. Because you've been working in Eindhoven for roughly two years now, whereas before you always worked in Belgium. You now give an example of e.g. health insurance and other measures in areas where there are quite a few differences - I think as an ordinary citizen we often don't think about that. How does the Netherlands deal with the whole issue of diversity and inclusion differently - if you compare it to Belgium?

Everything is different. And that really shocked me when I moved to the Netherlands. I would call that a neo-liberal system, whereas in Belgium you still have a very socialist system. So everything is different. Health insurance is not something obvious: it is a service model, someone has to make money from it. That is actually a service like any other. Education runs very differently there. Childcare.

What do you notice in education?

What is urban education and almost free education with us (in Belgium) can be very different in the Netherlands. There will be different price categories attached to schools. And we have secondary education which is just six years, in the Netherlands you have modules. So you can, for example, graduate at 18, but you can also graduate at 21 if you have to do modules which means that the same curriculum is actually delayed over several years. So we would then take a year over or stay put, and here (in the Netherlands) you could buy additional modules to get to the same level. So that's another crazy thing. And a lot of things just have a revenue model.

Also the public sphere or the social sphere is much more strongly cast in revenue models, has it mostly then been privatised somehow?

Yes. Public transport, for example, is also much more expensive in the Netherlands than in Belgium. It is no longer accessible to people. Public transport is also often not reimbursed by the employer, unless you are one of the lucky ones covered by a CLA. Whereas in Belgium, almost everyone is covered by a CLA at federal level - I don't know a single company (in Belgium) that is not covered by a CLA.... In the Netherlands, you have to subscribe to it. Pension savings are not done through your employer,..

And if you translate that to the topic of diversity and inclusion? I always walk around with the idea that the Netherlands is miles ahead of us in this area.

Miles different. And further in a different direction. Because in the Netherlands they believe they are much further ahead in Belgium. That's the joke.

They just took a completely different path, back in the 1960s with the migration flows. And Belgium and the Netherlands face very different thresholds and issues. So for example, where civil society is very large in Belgium: all the advocacy organisations, the grassroots organisations,... are subsidised by municipalities, or regional governments. I see very little of that here in the Netherland. Or it must be a very underground network, but I've already been looking for it.... Yes it's just not done that often, the civil society is not as powerful as it is in Belgium. It's a bit each man for himself in the Netherlands. And that works very well for them. Because everyone there is much more assertive, much harder, much more hawkish. It also depends on what your preference is because I myself am not the most assertive person [I wouldn't say that now]..

It's just very different. And the longer that I live there, the less that I can compare it.

We regularly see statistics come up, and one that always strikes me very strongly then - because we are also working on that, of course - is to what extent people with a migration background participate in the labour market in our country. That's where Belgium always scores at the bottom of the list of European countries. I remember: 20 years ago I managed a factory in the Netherlands, and I remember that the work floor was a reflection of society. And here (In Belgium) you have to look for them with a magnifying glass.

Yes, I can say that the unemployment rate in the Netherlands is really at an all-time low. Almost everyone is really working. All people, including women with migration backgrounds (which is usually one of the most demonstrable groups that is least employed so to speak). But to give an example completely out of context: childcare in the Netherlands is soexpensive that as a woman - or partner caring for the children, which unfortunately is still often the wife - you are almost obliged to stay at home or obliged to take a part-time job. The Dutch are king of part-time work: everyone works part-time. And if everyone works part-time, everyone must work. Last week or two weeks back, there was a government campaign, downright appalling: "women go to work more, get off your part-time chair, talk about it at home with your husband" - really! And it's probably aimed at women whose husbands won't let them go to work or take care of children, but at the same time, childcare is so expensive that you can't ask partners to work more often. Because you would go into the minus, or just work to be able to send your children to school. So there is a big inequality there. But I do think people are better integrated in the labour market here in the Netherlands.

What I do want to point out: the definitions of people with a migration background are different in Belgium and in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, first and second generation belong to 'people with a migration background' and third generation does not - [that is what they now call 'people with a foreign origin' in Flanders: that still includes people of first and second generation but not third anymore]. And then you have a split into non-Western and Western background, and for some statistics offices, people with Indonesian origin belong to the people with Western background. Because, of course, Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands, and they were given a free pass at one time: all the people who do live Christian lives were allowed to come and live in the Netherlands, and they just integrated here very quickly. For certain statistics, they then do not count as 'people with migration background', or at least not as 'people with non-Western migration background', while of course they can still be discriminated against just as much on the basis of colour or name.

Do you taste that discrimination in Dutch society?

We have just had a couple of surveys. Unfortunately, in the municipality's own survey, people with a non-Western migration background are still 20% less likely to be invited for an interview. So that's terrible. That's still super bad. Look, only when the threshold is in sight can you do something about it. I think we at the municipality thought we were doing really well and we have a super tight policy on that: objective selection criteria, scoring forms, training for our managers, all those things that should actually ensure that.... So then you have such a strong policy on objectification and equal opportunities, and even then something seeps through and unconscious bias (probably) still becomes part of the selection of candidates.

Just when a CV comes along in English language even instead of in Dutch,....

Yeah, it is in those little things. Or, I recently had an interview with someone who had applied to us two, three times and didn't get through. I see this woman, she looked fine: nice and professional, she had a jacket on, a super sweet woman, could really hold a conversation on a serious level. And then she sends me her CV, yes there are a few spelling mistakes in there, or that photo yes that's a selfie... and then I think ow, I see what's happening. It just doesn't look very professional your CV. But you do as a person.... And then I check with our employment team to see if we have some kind of 'pimp your CV' workshops, for example, because do people even know how to make a CV? And they often don't. And with every CV - yours, yours, yours - I can go and point out 100 points where I can start making up biases. I even used to do this as a game in the theatre: I would see someone walking down the street and then I would make up a whole life based on how they walked and what they ate. So we all have these prejudices. Some people have really made an art of making assumptions based on a CV and a motivation letter. And especially then based on the cover letter - because one is too long, the other is too short, then there's a spelling mistake in it.... And if you always start checking off those secret requirements on candidates, yes then 'there is no winning'.

Is that still the way job applications are done with you today? With a cover letter and a CV?

Yes. CV and cover letter. Those then end up in a programme. The vacancy holder may appoint a group assessment - a selection committee, actually - which is usually 2 to 3 colleagues and/or a recruiter or HR manager, and they may give stars. They then say 'definitely invite this person', 'don't invite this person'.

So kind of the classic process as we know it too....

Yes, it's more or less a scoring form. Very traditional.

Because, just to be clear, you are now talking about recruitment for people at the municipality itself.

Yes all the people who join the internal organisation.

And that organisation, for a municipality like Eindhoven, is pretty big.

2,400 people

So one of the largest employers in Eindhoven.

Yes, unless you include Veldhoven. [We don't count ASML here] We are one of the bigger ones indeed.

Another thing: you have an objective recruitment policy, which works with star ratings, but also with questioning a maximum of five core competences. There might be something interesting behind that because I don't know if we know it as something fixed here - that maximum 5 core competences can be questioned....

Yes. That is to prevent our vacancy from becoming really gigantically long and you end up looking for a sheep with five legs - is that what they say in Belgium? - or a white raven. We ask a maximum of five core competences per vacancy and we use a score form to test them. Because all other info has no predictive value about how someone will do their job. If someone lives 'too far away' from a job he is applying for, this should not have a negative effect. Unfortunately, you still come across this in procedures, where they say 'they live too far away so they won't get here in time', and then they say it will be difficult to employ them. It is an assumption if you think that person is not going to be available enough. So what you would think is really an objective consideration is often not.

And that's how it is described, that's how we want it: the city council, the board of directors, everyone supports this objective recruitment policy. We are super progressive in that: we have to do better and we really want to do better and there is support - but its implementation still has stings.

When are you successful? If you now look 3 years down the line in your current job? What are you striving for?

When my job no longer exists.

Because, your job is aimed at...? Why do you say if your job no longer exists?

I support our recruiters, our HR managers and department heads.

So you have a supporting role, you don't do the recruiting yourself?

No, I don't do that myself. I did do that in previous jobs.

And your support is aimed at making sure that in those processes everywhere, the right methods, the right questions,...

Yes, and that enough candidates come in. So it actually starts with inclusive language in a job posting. So what I just talked about as well: those 5 core competencies.... We still have a sentence at the bottom of the vacancy that goes like this: 'do you not meet the requested requirements but do you see yourself as...? Please do apply anyway.’ So that we really work in a low-threshold way, also for people who only recognise 95% of themselves in that particular profile. Because you always have people who overestimate themselves, who see a vacancy that is only a 95% match and then say 'woohoow I got this' - and you have a lot of people who have imposter syndrome, from short-skilled families, all those things, who are going to say 'oops, I only have a 95% match, so I'm not going to apply.' And we just really want to appeal to those people and we say 'please do come because maybe you have competencies that we don't even know we need'. But it doesn't help if you can't spice up your CV or make it interesting for us. So there's also something in there somewhere where I think 'what's happening there'? Should we start looking at innovative techniques and just stop asking for a CV and cover letter?

Yes exactly, we see that more and more, don't we?

I'm quite excited about that. I don't know whether it might not increase the threshold for candidates - who often have a CV ready anyway. And applying anonymously in the Netherlands also has varying effects. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn't.

When is it not good?

Yes in certain municipal organisations, it has actually backfired. I think. The example I always give, and it may be a bit too bluntly worded... Imagine there is a Mark and a Mohamed, same level of education. Mark who was allowed to start a wonderful internship right after school or during school, who then immediately got a first nice job in that company, and who was able to start right away and move up his level. Mohamed on the other hand, has had to deal with internship discrimination, he already couldn’t find an internship right away, he is doing the internship slightly below his level, or he started working in the AP - in the Albert Heijn - so to speak. Yes he will then have trouble finding a first good job because he hasn't had those first work experiences, you see? And he might be sub-hired: that means he has to start somewhere below his level. So it will also take a few more years for that person to get to the same level as Mark. Now I ask you: if I now put those 2 CVs in front of you, and you have an equal opportunity policy, which CV is going to be the best candidate for you?

And the name is not on it?

It is not. But purely on paper and on the basis of work experience (not even on the basis of competences), are you still concerned with equal opportunities?

Okay, and would it be different if the name was mentioned?

It wouldn't. Because you are concerned with equal opportunities.

Yes yes, but you indicate that it sometimes backfires. Then I wonder: does it backfire in recruitment at any point?

Yes if you can't take into account any previous discrimination someone may have accumulated, then you can be 'colour-blind' all you want but actually the picture is still wrong somewhere.... Is the solution then to go for targets, quotas, positive actions,...? That's another matter entirely.

Let me come back to your comment you just made: I will have succeeded if in five years I have made my job redundant. So what must have happened for your job to be redundant?

Awareness. If everyone is a bit on board with the fact that unconscious prejudices are still part of your recruitment and selection process, if everyone realises this and is able to follow up a bit of that training themselves and take on new managers themselves, then my job should no longer exist. There would no longer be a D&I specialist. And I speak for all D&I specialists that we hope to no longer have a job within five years - or to do something else, something more fun, so to speak. Then everyone would be a specialist D&I themselves.

D&I : diversity and inclusion.


I myself have some mixed feelings about the word 'inclusion' sometimes. We use it a lot now. Someone said the other day that we shouldn't use it anymore, because the moment we use it, we actually refer to others as 'different'. So you actually confirm the difference. And on the other hand, it also has a strong implication of 'the other can join in if he adapts to us'. So the other person has to adapt and we don't.[Assimilation] What does that evoke in you?

Assimilation is a thing. I also occasionally come across companies and teams that are predominantly male and then there is one woman in them, and that woman has assimilated so much to that male leadership that you still cannot speak of inclusion and diversity. If we start expecting people to assimilate to the group then we still cannot speak of inclusion. For me 'inclusion' does not evoke us vs. them thinking, for me it just evokes 'us-thinking'. But yes look if we start expecting all people to act like 'the norm'.. The 'norm worker' in the Netherlands is still set: that is still a white male between 35 and 55, cisgender, heterosexual, and probably has a wife at home who takes on the bulk of the caring responsibilities. Yes in the 1950s that was so - but surely not at all now anymore.... If you're going to expect all your employees to start acting like the norm: work nice and hard, don't whine, millennials are faint-hearted and are all sitting around with burnout, we should all just be able to laugh at faulty jokes,... Yes if you start expecting that then you really have a structural problem. If people with a certain background or an introverted nature don't fit into an assertive team, for example, then you have a problem. And that, to me, is also where inclusion comes into play. Because by now we live in a superdiverse society and we should definitely be mindful of creating space for those people's input. And not trying to pull all people to that standard as much as possible - which, by the way, I think no longer exists.

You just said - and we also notice this in Flanders - the labour market is actually (and maybe this is the wrong word) saturated: there is hardly any unemployment left. In a lot of places in Flanders we also notice that unemployment is very low and that the labour market is very tight....

On that front, employer branding in particular is very important. So I am a millennial, I am a millennial through and through: I drink oat milk in my coffee and my dog is my child. I very much want to be able to identify with my employer. I really want to know that he 100% stands for what I stand for. I can't work nine to five and close my laptop at five, go home and start my 'second life' - like it was still possible in the 1950s. I want to know that I have training opportunities with my employer. That I can continue my need for professionalisation, that I can shape it myself. I also have a fairly new job, which I can help shape and outline a bit myself. And that is really what - I think - characterises a millennial. Every generation is going to have its own desires in that. That's something you have to take into account, and it's just as much about inclusion: making sure that people get enough choices in their benefits package, for instance - which, by the way, is also geared towards that standard employee. I think should I start my own company tomorrow and become an employer, drop those Christian holidays. Just give people 10 extra days in a year and then they can take the Eid festivities off in those holidays without having to take Easter off and request free days for Eid celebrations (that's difficult because it's often not predetermined...). Working from home, hybrid working, all that is now possible since corona but how bad is it that this kind of virus was necessary to make this possible? Because how many people are not in time constraints at home - to run errands and the bank yes you just had to do that on Saturday morning.... I think that inclusion is also on the condition that everyone is allowed to design their jobs a bit by themselves. But that's not always possible - we know that too: if you're on the assembly line making a chair in a factory: you're not allowed to go and make things up, you're not allowed to go and imagine different legs to the furtniture. I think then when you really talk about jobcrafting and jobcarving, yes almost all of us are actually secretly doing jobcrafting already. You may also do a bit of classifying of what you may do in your job. Yes that's actually very elite huh that all of us can do that. There is such a large percentage of the population that cannot do that. Because it is indeed imposed.

So you're actually saying: the impact on that recruitment process is that you make it clear that you respond to what the job seeker looks for today, or what the employee is looking for today - because maybe they are working while looking for work [yes, until something else and better comes along, for instance]. It means that as an employer you profile yourself as the place where one finds opportunities for self-development?

Yes and try to address the needs of (future) employees from all sides: who is the employee you want to attract? And bring those aspects into play.

Will we go so far that soon - if this continues, that tight labour market - we will evolve towards an open hiring model? So one would apply for a vacancy, and the first person to respond gets to start? After maybe a mini screening to see if they meet some minimum competences?

I think it's a very interesting concept. In Eindhoven, there is the Start Foundation, which is at the forefront of open hiring. The feedback I've always received is that it's good for MBO ('intermediate vocational education') students, for instance from secondary school, and from the moment you really start recruiting from university you can no longer do open hiring. I think it very much depends on your open position as well. I don't know if open hiring can be done at any position - I haven't heard that that would work at any time.

Or maybe we don't dare yet?


Another thing that is coming up in terms of recruitment and that is also very hip and happening is that you get a bonus if you bring someone in. What does that do for diversity and inclusion I wonder? If you start drumming up all your schoolmates from LinkedIn to come and work here..?

There are different techniques and every time they come up with something new and I find them all equally interesting - but every time I immediately reflect and wonder ‘okay, what will work for our sector and what for your company, what works for my organisation?'

You just briefly mentioned the word 'targets'. In your current job, do you have targets you are working towards?

No. We consciously steer away from that. The municipal council and the executive council decided that we are not going to work with targets. We mirror the labour market regionally. So when we have those studies done and we know whether we are doing well or not, we are not going to say '30%' but we are going to say 'in the region we see this and this happen... in the Eindhoven region, in the North Brabant region, maybe even on a national level...' and then we are going to test how we can match that at our level.

And then what do you check? What are typical indicators?

How many women are employed, how many - regardless of the diversity of women, because we are at 60% women, for example, we are over-represented now - women are at the top? And then we start looking at a national and regional level: what is average in other organisations? There is no longer a target number for people with an employment restriction if I am not mistaken. They want to do away with that nationally as well. There was some kind of scheme for people coming out of long-term or chronic illness or something. I notice that there are more and more initiatives to let go of those target numbers. I do not think target numbers should be an obligation, but it still it would be good to know what it couldbe approximately. Not what it should be, but what it could be. And that would just be something good to keep in the back of your mind I think: what ideallyit would be. And without putting yourself in corners there to start recruiting people to then put them in an unsafe work situation. So that's a target, that's not a quota yet.

And do you measure the impact of what you are doing in some other way internally in the organisation? Do you measure it somehow with indicators?

We tried that, and I thought it was ethically irresponsible. Because I never know 100% who I helped bring in and who I didn't. And we say personality traits don't matter, so then we're not going to measure that afterwards either. So we don't measure it. What we do measure - although you can't really measure that - is awareness: we are very much focusing on that now at the municipality and that is very nice. Being aware of exclusion and unconscious discrimination - because it remains unconscious. People do have a lot of career opportunities, inclusion is very well measured in our organisation: from the moment you come for an interview, there is no discrimination. Only in letter selection is that still the case. So now we are really working on bringing up the level of awareness: know that it can happen very quickly, know that a tap on the shoulder promotion (that you already know someone and they get a free good word) that by giving that priority you are unwittingly closing the door for a lot of people.

Sharon I feel like we could continue talking for another 3 hours but I'm beginning to get worried about Artemis having to do the editing later.... So I look to my right to see if there is still a burning question there.

Maybe not a burning question but out of of a curiosity... Sharon you just said that sometimes it is really hard work. At the same time: while you are speaking here with us now, your energy really lights up the room. But how do you make sure that that flame doesn't go out?

My direct managers know: if I say at 4 o'clock one day 'guys I'm going for a walk', they know. Then I have to invoke political-administrative sensitivity in myself and they know I need a break. And I have the luxury of - I was already socially engaged, even on a voluntary basis - I have the luxury of doing something that I am 100% committed to, that I am going down fighting for. Sometimes it's a lot, sometimes it's exhausting, and then I need to take some time off then I need to come to myself. I then think to myself 'I am lucky (that may be harshly worded) that I try to minimise that in my spare time' - in my spare time I am much more involved in the LGBTQ scene, my fiancé is transgender so if just one more rainbow flag is set on fire yes we won't sleep for a week because that is just really violent. So I wish I could say that 'I can just shut that down and pretend it doesn’t matter’ but the issues are the same for a lot of groups. And we all just want the same thing I think. And you can't turn it off. The only thing I can do for myself is - as long as I've been doing this job I think it's super fun to do, but it's not something you want to do for 40 years. I think you can retire early then and just do something else,.. I really enjoy doing the onboarding part because it's something very constructive: you build something. But that culture change, breaking something down, that is indeed very gruelling.


>>> You have been listening to Let's Talk, the podcast where we feed the dialogue on 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!