For Diversity and Inclusion in Recruitment: Hera We Are

My guests today, Emma Storey and Nicola Morse, have both had extensive experience working in the recruitment industry. They decided to leave their employers and set up their recruitment consultancy and they place a real focus on diversity and inclusion. In today’s conversation, I was keen to find out why they’ve got that focus on inclusion and how it’s helping their business grow and develop.

We got started with me inviting Emma to introduce herself and her background.

‘I joined recruitment back in 2015, 2016 something like that. To be honest, I enjoyed the job from day one. I still love it. Before I started, I didn’t really know what it was, but I felt like I was quite good at it from day one. I just felt that this is an area that I can really help people with. It was then and still is now a very male-dominated industry. When I was younger and pre-children and everything, that didn’t really affect me. But as the years went on, it felt very apparent what it is like to be a female in a male-dominated environment, much like the tech industry. More recently I’ve got a 4-year-old son and so over the last four or five years I’ve experienced what it’s like to be a working parent or a working mum in a male-dominated environment.

I’ve worked for three different companies, all great in their own way. Of course, there are challenges that comes with being the minority. It got to the point where, maybe eight or nine months ago Nicola and I started to get our heads together. We felt that there’s loads that we can be doing to be helping women in the tech industry. Having the understanding that we’ve got along with a recruitment perspective is helpful. There’s a stereotype of a tech recruiter – usually male, someone very young, without children. There are so many candidates out there that cannot relate to that sort of person and don’t get the support and their requirements met, I guess, by that type of individual.

So Nicola and I met at the last company that we worked at. Nicola’s also got, Nicola’s got about 13-14 years of experience, and so we felt that from the two angles of being working parents and working mums by setting up our own business, we felt that that would give us the flexibility that we needed, and the sustainability in terms of staying in recruitment for a long period of time. We felt that would be a positive thing for our families and for our children.

There is a stereotype of the recruitment role that you have to start at 7:00 a.m. and you can’t leave before 7:00 p.m. and if you’re not doing that then, you know, are you really committed to the job? We knew that this is crap and we could do a really good job in the hours that work for our family and the flexibility that works for our family.

We decided that, yes, we can do this and that we’re going to back ourselves. Even more importantly than that we felt passionate about supporting others who might be women or parents in tech but also just across that diversity and inclusion piece supporting lots of different minority groups. We wanted to do that more at the forefront of what we’re doing rather than on the side. When you’re working in a big corporate agency you definitely have to do it on the side. The main priority for most of those businesses is to hit your KPIs and hit your targets. That financial reward to put bums on seats doesn’t always mean doing the best thing for the candidate or the best thing for the client. We wanted to flip that on its head. We thought what would happen if we just do what we love doing? Helping people, really understanding what our clients need, and what our candidates need from us and doing that to the absolute best of our ability and almost slowing down the pace of what we were used to. Servicing fewer clients and customers and candidates really, really well. Then the commercial element of it will hopefully look after itself without being driven by the KPIs. So, that’s what we’ve done. We set up Hera in November last year, we’ve been really clear with the mission and the branding and creating a safe space for both candidates and clients.

It’s exciting, and so far it is panning out exactly as we intended it to. The demand is definitely there. People feel safe to talk to us and more so than they did before. We’ve been doing this job for a long time but people just didn’t feel safe to be able to tell us what their own sort of unique situation was. They couldn’t be their authentic selves because at the end of the day, we were a recruiter and we were there to get them a job. Since we’ve set up Hera we’ve noticed a huge difference in the way people are opening up to us and from both sides of the spectrum. Candidates and companies asking for help and sharing their views or their concerns or their struggles and it’s been really nice to be able to support with that.’

What Emma had described absolutely amazing. I turned to Nicola to introduce herself a bit more as well.

‘As Emma mentioned, I have close to 13 years of recruitment experience across non-technical and, most recently, technical roles. To be honest, my situation and my circumstances are similar to Emma’s and I think that’s probably why we’ve got such a great synergy between the two of us.

I have got two children, a 5-year-old daughter and an 18-month-old son. As Emma mentioned we’ve come from that agency background that sometimes serve a brilliant purpose but for us we wanted to be the change that we wanted to see. Specifically, we know about the issues that we have with women in technology across the board whether it’s in terms of bringing women into the tech sector or retaining women in the technology sector which includes things like the menopause. So it’s about keeping them within the sector for as long as possible.

I think since having my daughter and being so heavily involved in the tech space that put the bit between my teeth to be able to actually make the change that we wanted to see. I think the diversity and inclusion piece quite often is this big beast that people don’t feel comfortable talking about. They don’t know how to talk about it. They don’t know what questions to ask or what policies to introduce. When we were working in our previous employers there was definitely a time and a place for DE&I to be considered but it wasn’t at the forefront.

It’s something that as Emma has mentioned, we are both are hugely passionate about and have been for a long time. So, we took the leap. I know it sounds really cheesy but we did want to be that change that we wanted to see. We want to move the needle in the right direction and so Hera was founded and literally Hera we are.’

I really like that strapline. “Hera was founded and Hera we are.” I don’t know if Emma and Nicola came up with that on the spot today or whether hours have been spent working on that as part of the branding but it’s really good.

Both Emma and Nicola have mentioned a number of reasons why they left previous recruitment employers. I wondered, ‘What was that moment where you got together and you were like, you know what? We have to do it. Now is the time to do it. What was that kind of pivotal moment for you?’

‘That’s a really good question. I think, for me, it was certainly thinking there’s always going to be something isn’t there? I think to be honest it was about taking the risk to see what happens. As an individual, I am probably quite risk averse and I’ve always followed structure. I like routine and I like to know where I am. I think when Emma and I were talking it just seemed like too good an opportunity to pass us by in terms of how aligned we were with our values and in our personal lives. There’s also the fact that we’ve got a brilliant relationship between the two of us, so I think it was just one of those things that we just thought, “Why not?”

Opportunities don’t come around like this all that frequently and I think if we wanted to be, and do what we were passionate about it was about jumping in two feet first to make the best of a great situation that we were in.’

I asked Emma a similar question. ‘How about you? When was that pivotal moment? When was that time where you were just like, sod it let’s do it?’

I think for me it came a bit earlier. Probably 18 months prior I was at a point where I potentially wanted to set up by myself and I hadn’t met anyone like Nicola at that point who would be the obvious person to do it with. I knew that I had a lot to offer. I had some great ideas but the logistics of actually doing it and being brave enough, and we were still in COVID times at that point as well, so I just didn’t feel ready. It just didn’t feel 100% right. I thought getting some different agency experience would be good for me to either help me change direction slightly and go down a different route or just reaffirm to me that actually, this was what I wanted to do. I’ve always been quite entrepreneurial. I’ve always seen myself running my own business of some form and playing with different ideas of what that would look like, but never enough to press the button.

Meeting Nicola, bringing our ideas together and realising how aligned we were, it is obviously very rare to meet someone like that. Not only were we aligned in our periods of life but the importance we placed on the different aspects of the role. I think recruitment is like a bit of a minefield. You’re juggling lots of different elements of the job and almost like slotting into different mindsets and different job roles multiple times a day. Typically you would work very differently to the person that sits next to you and you wouldn’t necessarily see things in the same way or place the same importance on the same things. As much as Nicola and I have different skill sets and we complement each other well with the roles that we take on, the importance that we place on each thing and our values are like 100% aligned. I think as soon as we realised that, it was a no-brainer.’

My next question was about the Hera vision for doing recruitment differently.

Nicola replied, ‘One of our slogans or taglines is that it’s tech recruitment redefined by women. I think it’s just stripping away that stereotypical bums on seats approach that is synonymous with recruitment and tech recruitment and is really competitive. As Emma said the vision and values that we want to bring through to create are that place of psychological safety where people from underrepresented minority groups, no matter who they are, whether they’re those that have neurodivergent characteristics, whether they’re working mums, whether they’re working dads, whether they’re people, you know, from Black and ethnic minority groups.

It’s creating that space where people feel comfortable to come to us and ask questions on anything DE&I related that they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable asking when it comes to their recruitment practices. We’ve always said, you know, we’re not the experts. I don’t know whether there is such a thing as kind of a DE&I expert because it’s a period of continuous growth and continuous change. But we are creating an environment where we can break down those barriers and have those conversations. Asking how we can make interview experiences more inclusive for everybody rather than just kind of a certain demographic of people.

We’re giving people the opportunity to share our vision, I suppose, in terms of moving the needle in the right direction to genuinely make a difference to the industry that we’re working in at the moment.’

I said to Emma that as co-founders she and Nicola presumably have this shared vision. I wondered if there was anything else that’s in their future vision for the recruitment business.

‘I guess something we haven’t touched upon is Hera Voice. When we decided to set up Hera we were really nailing down what we wanted the business to represent and how we wanted to be sort of seen and understood by the market. We thought that it would be sensible to separate a little bit the recruitment piece from the communities piece.

Recruitment is our bread and butter and that’s how we can support clients at the core of what we do, but we wanted to extend that community piece. As Nicola said we’re not the experts but we definitely want to be the sign posters. So, we created Hera Voice which is our community where we will share knowledge, we will signpost to people that are the experts, we will share webinars or meetups or events and we’ll also host our own. We’ve just hosted our first event last week which was amazing.

We feel that piece will complement nicely. To be honest, we speak to so many people and it’s not always recruitment that they need in that moment so we want to be able to offer them something. We felt that Hera Voice was the way to do that, to allow people to form connections with topics that they want to talk about but they might not know who else to talk about them with. So, Hera Voice runs alongside it and that will be where we give underrepresented or minority groups the opportunity to talk about the things that are going to make the difference essentially.’

I really liked Emma’s point earlier about how Hera is bringing diversity and inclusion into the foreground whereas other agencies maybe their focus on the commercial side. When companies are busy hitting targets and KPIs, diversity and inclusion is often seen as this thing on the side of the business or a bolt-on activity. I think Emma and Nicola re positioning themselves well in terms of being able to build strong relationships with clients that have got questions or concerns about diversity and inclusion.

I also know that Emma and Nicola have had some interesting conversations with employers about diversity and inclusion in the past. I asked Nicola, ‘What are some of the common concerns or questions that employers are coming to you with?’

‘There’s not necessarily a common set or themes of questions. It’s looking at DE&I as this massive beast where people don’t know what to do in any capacity. I guess where we come in, Emma and I and our brand Hera. We ask hiring managers the questions before they know the questions need to be asked if that makes sense.

So, we might be taking a spec for example for a software engineer to come in and work in a tech business. So where we come in that’s slightly different to other businesses is we genuinely kind of ask those questions, not to be difficult at all, it’s just to make sure that we’re covering diversity and inclusion when it comes to the recruitment process. We ask what are they doing when it comes to their interview process. What are they doing when it comes to screening? We’re also using completely blank and blind CVs.’

Emma added, ‘They might say, actually, do you know what? We’re really lacking some female energy in the team and we’d love some more women in tech. That’s brilliant but what if we don’t ask the question, “Okay, so when we are potentially bringing you some more females into the team, what are you doing to be able to retain them?”

It’s all of those things that people might not have thought of because as I said, I think diversity is seen as kind of lots of policies and procedures. It’s quite scary and it’s quite taboo but all we do is break down those conversations. Just asking questions that people might not ordinarily ask to create an environment where it’s inbuilt and we’re not making it a thing, if that makes sense, by just building this into day-to-day habits, day-to-day practices.

When it comes to recruitment, it’s using just the little bits of information that we’re picking up as we go to be able to kind of introduce those to hiring managers. They might not have thought about how the menopause might affect somebody coming into the technology industry as a career changer. Or it might be a hiring manager that’s not thought about someone who might be autistic, for example, who might need noise-cancelling headphones throughout an interview process to be able to interview remotely. It’s all of those little things that we’re trying to do, the smaller things that make a bigger impact for our hiring managers and for businesses when it comes to looking at diversity and inclusion as a whole.’

I asked Nicola, ‘When you do ask those probing questions of hiring managers, what kind of reception are you receiving or what kind of response are you getting?’

‘What’s really refreshing is it’s a really positive one. I think there are lots of businesses that we’ve had conversations with that acknowledge they’ve got a lot of work to do but that we’re those safe people for them to come to. We’re getting some really good responses. It’s those smaller things that they’re thinking that they could implement within the space of five minutes or just by asking that extra question that’s going to really help us attract and retain the diverse talent that we’re looking to bring into the business. So, it’s been super positive.

I think that just goes to show that the more we’re talking about diversity and inclusion, especially in recruitment, the more that knowledge is going to spread and the more we’re going to be able to move the needle in the right direction. Then in 10 years’ time, we will be able to say we’re just that little bit more diverse and a little bit more inclusive than we are today. That’s all we can ask for really.

I think Emma and I are very aware that everybody is human, and we have very much entered into setting up our own business to be able to treat people as we would like to be treated. Every hiring manager is a person and they’ll be someone’s mum, son, brother, sister so I think when you kind of put that back onto people just wanting to get out of bed and do the best they can with the circumstances that they’re in I think by completely humanising that we’ve had such a positive response. It’s really refreshing, and we are so impressed to see that people are taking it on board so well and then implementing the smaller things we’re recommending they do.’

One of the most common things that I hear from my clients when they work with recruiters is that my clients want to attract a diverse range of candidates and they want to have an inclusive culture within their organisation. They go out to various recruitment agencies to help them find and attract that talent. Then they become disappointed when the agencies deliver a non-diverse shortlist of candidates, even though it’s under a brief to the agency that they want to have a diverse set of candidates presented back to them on the shortlist. I asked Nicola why it she thinks that some agencies are failing to deliver diverse shortlists when we know that diversity is out there, and the client is specifically requesting it?

‘If there was a common theme from what we hear from clients, that would be it as well. We get new clients, new businesses coming to us saying, “Oh, thank goodness! I do work with some agencies and they’re great, but it would be lovely to be presented with a shortlist that isn’t just ten white males.” And that’s fairly normal. We’ve obviously experienced that ourselves as well in the recruitment industry. I think the key thing is because of speed and the fact that, you know, when you’re working under somebody else’s mission, which does tend to focus around the financials of it, then your main priority is to fill that job as quickly as you can. It is much quicker and easier to find 10 white men, certainly in the tech industry than it is to go out and search. And in terms of searching, it’s not even as if you just take a brief from a client and then you go out and you look for the diverse talent. It’s all day, every day that we’re building relationships and connections with a diverse talent pool.

It’s about people, you know, coming to us and us going to them and going to events and inviting people to events and everything that you’re doing on a day-to-day basis is increasing our network of diverse talent. Therefore, we can, when that job comes through where they say, “This is what we’re looking for, and we need a diverse talent pool,” then, A, the likelihood is we’ve got more diverse talent because we’ve personally invested the time to go and find it already. But it also means that we can turn around to that client and say, “That’s absolutely fine. I hope you understand that I can’t just present you with a shortlist tomorrow. In order to get the right talent and to give you the diversity that you’re looking for, it will take a little bit longer. Now whether that’s a few days, or whether it’s a couple of weeks you will know what we’re doing because we’ll keep you updated.”

You can’t do that in a bigger agency because you’ve got a set process and you are expected to make a certain amount of calls that day to deliver your shortlist the following day. And that’s that. I think where we give ourselves the freedom and the time to do that search justice and really listen to what the clients are asking us for, that’s where we’re different.

We also track all the data as well and ask candidates to provide their own personal data around their diversity and their traits, so that we know that we are providing that. I haven’t worked at a company that’s done that before, so I don’t think that’s normal. But then we can look at our data and we look at it weekly, if not twice weekly, to see are we keeping on top of what we expect of ourselves to present people with diverse candidates, whether that is neurodivergent individuals, the ratios between male and female, different age groups, literally, everything.

It’s obviously entirely up to the candidates if they don’t want to provide that information. But most people do, and they really understand why we’re doing it. It’s completely confidential. It stays with Hera. But it does mean that we can hold ourselves accountable to not just going with speed and presenting clients with a list that we think we can get placement from in the next few days, but actually the talent pool that they’ve asked for. That also means we are providing those opportunities for all those candidates that we’ve spoken to and promised that we will do our very best to find the right role for them. It comes down to that as well in lots of recruitment agencies but also in lots of other businesses is that kind of diversity and diverse shortlists are still, unfortunately, seen as a nice-to-have whereas for us that’s an absolute essential. A diverse shortlist for any role that we work is an essential to have and absolutely not a nice-to-have.

A lot of businesses that ask us for those shortlists might say, “We really struggle to hire women. We don’t know why, but we’ll post our own adverts. We don’t get many female applicants and we’ll go to agencies and we don’t get many females through from the agencies either.”

It then allows us to have that conversation with them. “Okay. So why do we think that might be? Like, yes, we know there is a shortage. We know that the ratios of male and women in the tech industry are off, but there is loads of talent there, so why can’t it be found for your company?”

There are so many things that they can be doing that we can help them with. Whether that’s looking at what they’re posting on LinkedIn or thinking about what their careers page look like or what is their maternity package and is it visible for people to see?

Many things don’t take that much effort, but they just hadn’t realised how important that is for women when they’re applying for jobs. So there’s little quick wins as well that we can do without even providing them with a shortlist to just help them in that attraction piece.’

I like how Hera is providing a consultative approach. Not just going out and finding people and producing a shortlist, but doing so with quality in mind and the understanding that that may take time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because I think those other recruitment agencies that are very kind of run-of-the-mill have a process. That’s where recruiters are expected to pick up the phone and make X number of phone calls a day and meet a KPI to get a shortlist back the following day or something like that. I think what the compromise is that you might lack quality of candidates in the shortlist or you’re certainly lacking diversity in the shortlist as well, which is an issue.

I asked Nicola, ‘What are you finding are some of the challenges that candidates are experiencing when it comes to disclosing what their needs are or what their requirements might be during the recruitment process?’

‘I think the main challenge that we’re seeing is a bit of a theme and would be that candidates are not able to be their authentic selves and I guess not being able to disclose any characteristics or their full characteristics or circumstances that make them, them. We have had so many conversations with mums who are going through an interview process and they actually don’t disclose that they’ve got children, or it might be someone, as I’ve said, kind of that is neurodiverse and doesn’t want to ask for reasonable adjustments in the interview process because it actually feels that they would put an employer off.

So, when it comes to kind of pain points from candidates and the people that we’re working with, it’s that authentic self piece. We try and just make sure that we’re encouraging people to have those conversations and knowledge share and say, “Actually, you know what? I have got two children and these are the reasonable adjustments that I’d need,” or “Yes, I have got this and these are the reasonable adjustments that I’d need.”

So, I think from a candidate’s perspective, it loops back into creating a safe environment. We want them to be able to tell us and disclose that information to us so that if they don’t feel confident in talking to a hiring manager, we can perhaps address it in a slightly different way. And the more of those pain points we know, the more of those things that we can address before it even needs to be addressed.’

My next question was about how Nicola and Emma manage to create that psychological safety for candidates in order for them to feel able to disclose their needs and requirements so that they can bridge the gap between them and the employer?

Nicola replied, ‘I think it’s a combination of things. I think our branding does that. We were really deliberate in the way that we branded ourselves and branded Hera to hopefully make it as clear as possible to people what we’re passionate about and what we want to help people with. That naturally allows people to gravitate towards us. A lot of the time we’ll get messages on LinkedIn with the opening line something like, “Thank you so much for sharing that post yesterday. It was really refreshing to see. I haven’t been diagnosed, but I also believe that I’m neurodivergent,” and then that opens up a bigger conversation.

A lot of the time it’s people seeing what we’re doing and then opening up. What we also do is provide candidates with documents and guides. We’ve got an interview support preparation document that we share with every candidate, even if they’re not interviewing with us. But we’ve had a chat with them and they are on the job market. And one of the first lines on there is, “Do not be afraid to ask for any adjustments that you feel might benefit you going through an interview process.” So that quite often sparks people to then have a conversation with us about that.

Or we might say, “You know, I saw in your document that you mentioned this, like this is something that I’ve struggled with in the past. Do you think it would be reasonable for me to ask for this adjustment or that adjustment?”

So, we’re just trying to be as blatant as we can, really. And again, when we’re speaking with them and having these conversations, it’s about just asking the questions. And when we’re booking interviews for them, asking the questions, and trying to make sure that the clients that we’re working with are really open to that as well. We won’t work with companies that aren’t on the same page as us. If they’re completely non-inclusive and they’re not even really aware of it or they don’t really care about that, then we won’t be working with them.

It doesn’t mean that the clients we have are perfect, no one is. This is a journey, but that’s fine as long as they are addressing the fact that there’s room for improvement. They might be in the space of, “We’re not the best on this. We could do with a bit of help, but what we are trying to do and what we have done and kind of those conversations.” So at least when we’re introducing a candidate to a company, we know that they are aware of it and anything that we suggest or the candidate opens up about, is going to be received in the right way. That’s where we try and draw the line, really. Some companies have actually said to us, “Oh no, we’re great. We’re sorted. We’ve really, you know, we’ve nailed D&I.” We think, well, that’s equally as much of a red flag as organisations that aren’t interested in the journey.

The question I ask everybody when they come on this show is, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’ and Nicola addressed this first.

‘We’ve loved putting our heads together to come up with an answer to this. We had a coffee this morning to theorise some of our thoughts. For us as co-founders of Hera, inclusive growth is about being on a continuous journey with no end goal, to create an inclusive environment for everyone to be able to be their most authentic selves in any situation and in any environment. So just removing the fact that D&I has got this end goal and once you hit it, it’s a gold star and a tick in the box. It’s being mindful that it’s continuous and it’s about making sure that everybody everywhere, regardless of their situation and who they are, has a place of belonging because of who they are and because of all of their authentic characteristics and their traits.’

Before we concluded I asked Emma, ‘What would you like the person listening to us right now to do when they go back to their desk?’

‘We are always open to a conversation. Whether you’re a hiring manager where something we’ve said might have resonated. In terms of who we work with, and who we want to support, we work with startups and scale-ups are our bread and butter. That’s what we’ve been doing for a long time. We’re still very, very keen to work with smaller businesses, probably at the sort of earlier stage of their journey. We absolutely love supporting female founders. So any female-founded business or female leaders who want to hear more about what we do, then please do reach out.

We love supporting tech for good businesses and companies that are very mission-led and have a social purpose. And for the corporate or larger sort of enterprise businesses that want to be continually improving their D&I, then we love to help those businesses as well. So do reach out on LinkedIn and please do check out our website. There’s tons of information on there around what we do, and ways to contact us. Our contact details are on there as well and we can get a call in the diary.’

To connect with the Mildon team for tailored support on your organisation’s diversity and inclusion journey, visit the website where you can find free resources and further information.

For Diversity and Inclusion in Recruitment: Hera We Are - Mildon