Major study finds gap in businesses’ understanding of recruitment law

Published: 10 Oct 2016

British businesses are being urged to ensure fair treatment in recruitment after research into employers’ knowledge and attitudes reveals confusion and misunderstanding of the law on advertising jobs.

The new research reveals that employers see both UK and foreign-born workers as productive, motivated and hardworking. However, a slightly higher proportion of employers felt more positively towards foreign born workers in terms of their work ethic and flexibility, and that they were less likely to think about the impact of work on their benefit payments before taking a job.

Importantly, the research found very little evidence of discriminatory practices or preferential treatment in recruitment decisions. It is clear from the research that in the vast majority of cases employers look primarily for the skills, experience and qualifications for the vacancy on offer, regardless of nationality, but it does reveal the potential for bias as well as room for improvement in awareness of the law.

Only 39% of businesses surveyed knew that it is against the law to advertise jobs in Britain exclusively in a foreign language, unless the ability to speak that language is a genuine requirement of the job.

Less than half of workplaces (45%) knew that employers must check that all job applicants have a right to work in the UK before employing them, irrespective of their place of birth. More than one in 20 employers (6%) thought it was legal to offer foreign-born workers less than the minimum wage and almost one in ten (9%) believed it was lawful to pay foreign-born workers different rates from British ones.  

The research was carried out following concerns that recruitment methods were not always fair. The Commission will be writing to leading business organisations to remind them of their responsibility to ensure a level playing field in recruitment.

The other main findings from the research included:

Employer attitudes

  • A third of workplaces (31%) said that the main advantage of employing foreign-born workers was that they were generally hard working, and the most quoted disadvantage was poor English/literacy skills (44%)
  • 39% of employers said that the main advantage of employing UK workers was their skills in English language and literacy
  • 15% of employers said that the main disadvantage of employing UK-born workers was that they were not sufficiently hard-working
  • 92% of workplaces believed foreign-born workers to be productive and the same percentage said they were flexible (92%). 83% of businesses believed UK workers to be productive and 77% believed them to be flexible
  • More than two-fifths of workplaces (43%) said UK-born workers were generally concerned about the impact that work would have on their benefits compared to 17% for foreign-born workers
  • The proportion of employers who would generally describe UK-born workers as having high pay expectations was 40% compared to 18% for foreign born workers

Research into unsuccessful applications

  • Two thirds of workplaces (64%) said that applications from UK-born applicants had been unsuccessful primarily due to insufficient enthusiasm, motivation and energy and the same proportion (64%) said it was because of a lack of relevant knowledge or experience. This compares to 30% and 47%, respectively, of workplaces who said the same of foreign-born workers.
  • Poor communication skills in English was cited as the most common reason for turning down applications from foreign-born workers (54%). 38% of employers said the same of UK-born workers.
  • Around a third (34%) of all workplaces that employed foreign-born workers said that they would prefer to hire workers who spoke the same language as existing foreign-born staff whose first language was not English. This is potentially discriminatory if language skills are not a requirement for the role.

Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, David Isaac, said:

“Employees born outside the UK make a significant contribution to our economy and many businesses rely on them as part of their workforce. 

“Our research shows that, regardless of the value placed on both UK and foreign-born workers, some prejudices do exist and there are misunderstandings about employment law that could lead to discriminatory recruitment practices. We will be writing to business organisations to remind them of employers’ legal responsibility to ensure that recruitment is a level playing field.

“Our research shows that, in the vast majority of cases, employers recruit on merit, despite some difference in attitudes towards British and foreign born workers. We need to guard against negative attitudes and stereotypes creeping in, and continue to ensure that the best person for the role should be given every opportunity to show how successful they can be.”

Notes to editors

Read the full report: Research report 104: Recruitment in Britain

The research was conducted by a research consortium comprising Oxford University’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), Institute for Employment Studies and IFF Research Ltd. It covered the five industries of food manufacturing, accommodation, food services, computer programming and social care. Over 1,000 employers and 100 recruitment agencies took part in a telephone interview and 25 workers and 10 employers or recruiters had face to face interviews.

When an employer can show that having a particular protected characteristic is a genuine requirement of a particular job, they can insist that only someone who has that particular protected characteristic is suitable for the job. This would be an ‘occupational requirement’.

The Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2014 prohibit recruitment agencies advertising specific vacancies exclusively in an EEA state other than the UK for jobs based in Great Britain unless they are advertised in English in Great Britain either before or at the same time.

The 2016 regulations (the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2016) amend the 2014 regulations to extend it to generic recruitment.

Press contact details

For more press information contact the Commission's media office on:

0161 829 8102