During an episode of The Apprentice earlier this month, five of the candidates competing to become Sir Alan Sugar’s next apprentice in a £100,000-a-year job were whittled down to two. Each candidate was put through three gruelling interviews and then faced Sugar in the boardroom to hear his decision.
In a rare insight into the selection process for an executive position, the programme highlighted some poignant issues for employers in respect of equal opportunities within the employment selection process. It was depressing to see, first-hand, a lack of awareness of the relevant law.
One of the most entertaining candidates in this series was the self-proclaimed “ruthless” Katie Hopkins.
Worryingly, the interviewers and Sugar questioned Hopkins’ commitment to the role, given that she is the mother of two young children. It was suggested that Hopkins could not be a good long-term prospect if her priorities were her two children.
Sugar investigated the problems that Hopkins would face in relocating her family from Devon to London if she was successful. Contrast this with Tre Azam’s interview, who despite also having a young child was, in the clips shown, not questioned about any childcare issues.
Hopkins herself played into the hands of the selectors by declaring that female applicants who have already had children are a “better prospect” than ones who are yet to have children, given that they would not need any maternity leave “and all that bull”. Despite it being 32 years since the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced, it is clear that there still exists a prevailing misconception, held by women as well as men, that women who are yet to start families, or who have young children, cannot give ‘commitment’ to a senior business role.
Perhaps more alarmingly, the interviewers felt that Hopkins had relied on using her ‘feminine charm’ to succeed, despite the fact that she is clearly an intelligent woman who at the time was earning £90,000 per year. Sugar’s sidekick Nick Hewer was concerned that Hopkins had “lips made for sin”.
Kristina Grimes, the other female to make it into the final five, is also a mother, with an 18-year-old. She said she was entering “Kristina time” as she could concentrate on her career now that her son was independent. Sugar agreed and stated that she could now “move onwards and upwards”, implying that she would have been unable to progress in her career if she still had a young child to care for. Grimes, now free of childcare issues, was selected to be a finalist.
Azam and Simon Ambrose, who went on to win the show, were the other two series favourites who provided some classic TV moments. Despite the fact that Azam was the most successful candidate in terms of the tasks set and won in previous episodes, he was fired with the words: “I think you need to grow up a little bit more.” Ambrose’s age of 26 was also a consideration as part of the selection process.
Of course, The Apprentice is commissioned by the BBC because it is highly entertaining and Sugar is primarily a businessman who ‘says it like it is’.
While his approach to business has made him hugely successful, an equal opportunities approach to all aspects of employment (including during the selection process) is effective in creating a diverse workforce in which a business can take advantage of a breadth of new perspectives.
The only way to be truly resonant with the equal opportunities approach is to ensure that employers question and resolve their preconceptions before judging applicants on those very things that make us all individuals.