Tips for Minority-, Ethnic-, and Gender-Based Recruitment

Long a topic of debate in both the public and private sectors, gender-based and race-based recruitment can be an important issue for public safety organizations. Indeed, their concerns may be even greater than those of other public sector agencies, given the sensitive situations that arise among fire, emergency medical, and law enforcement organizations. Departments may focus their hiring practices on certain genders or races in response to changing demographics, shifting needs, or public feedback. Despite the inherent sociopolitical charge behind terms like “diversity,” there are myriad reasons a department may wish to nudge its recruitment efforts towards a more representative sample of the population.

As the above-linked white paper notes, designing recruitment, training, and hiring policies that reflect the differences between men and women can be a challenge, fraught with reputational risks and possibly unfair perceptions of the department. While baseline biological differences are not a factor in gender-based recruitment in this sense, a clear strategy is still important for any number of reasons, up to and including the basic success of the initiative.

In this regard, agencies attempting to bolster recruitment of women or people of a certain racial/ ethnic makeup should consider their distinct needs. They should consult with experts regarding their exact strategy, and execute based on the specific points they uncover in fact-finding. The following points may be useful in developing these strategies, depending upon an organization’s unique requirements.

Exploring the advantages of gender-based recruitment policy

The same social and biological differences that make men and women who they are can make for recruits that suit broad talent-based needs. The idea that women are more in tune with their emotions and are better communicators due to biological differences is certainly a simplification, but the statement does align with research comparing the differences in how men and women are born, raised, and molded by society, and the skills they offer the public safety workforce.

The idea also matches the widespread notion that the average woman is better at relating to the people she talks to than her male counterpart. Beyond that notion’s veracity on the individual level, it is true that law enforcement departments in particular have embraced the idea. Departments have found themselves under increased pressure to turn to verbal practices like de-escalation and verbal judo before utilizing force. This aligns with research suggesting that women tend to be involved in fewer use-of-force incidents, and that average payouts for those incidents tend to cost organizations less than events involving male officers [PDF link].

Outliers to these generalities aside, departments looking to cultivate certain skills among their rookies may wish to expand their efforts to recruit women. This may pose a particular challenge in the male-dominated fire and law enforcement fields, which include 96 percent and 86 percent male employees, respectively. The perception that the average bullpen or firehouse is a male culture can be an instant point of concern for prospective female recruits, who may then decline to apply for several reasons, including:

  • Treatment as an equal. The “assumption of incompetence” can set back the recruitment of women, particularly in the fire field, where an accurate presumption that men tend to be physically stronger than women creates the inaccurate perception that women are unsuitable for the fire service.
  • Derision due to media coverage and testing procedures. Stories like the New York Fire Department’s controversial decision to hire a female recruit despite her failing physical performance standards multiple times over can erode respect for women recruited to a force regardless of their performance. Similar stories abound across the spectrum of law enforcement and military services, and it is up to the individual agency to determine which of its testing procedures are fair and which may carry hidden, often unintentional, bias.
  • Condescension and harassment. Without citing specific examples, the above two factors can create an environment where male personnel — including those with only good intentions —may knowingly or unknowingly harass, degrade, or otherwise “talk down” to woman recruits. This can mean anything from full-blown sexual harassment or using offensive terms to repeatedly and unnecessarily offering help on jobs a woman can perform on her own.

Personnel may scoff at the idea of sensitivity training and similar measures, but research suggests that initiatives along these lines can be hugely helpful in eliminating cultural artifacts that cause harm to female recruits or prevent women from applying at all. For example, over 70 percent of women who have not suffered sexual harassment in their current workplace believe their employer’s training methods on the matter are adequate.

On the specific topic of recruitment, agencies of all branches may wish to consider the message their marketing and recruitment efforts send. Hiring recruitment personnel who match the demographic the agency wishes to target is a solid first step. Care should also be taken when placing photographs on hiring brochures, agency websites, social media pages, and other recruitment channels. For example, a mix of images that include women carrying out day-to-day job tasks can have a strong effect.

Race-based recruitment: Discussion and strategy

Certain strategies utilized in the recruitment of women can also be effective when recruiting racial and ethnic minorities. For example, imagery should remain inclusive. Likewise, workplaces where racially insensitive behavior has been noted in the past — unintentional stereotyping when discussing suspects or political topics, for instance — should strive to educate personnel on creating a more welcoming, inclusive environment.

Training can also help organizations overcome unintentional biases that prevent effective recruitment. Take, for instance, research wherein false resumes with “white-sounding” and “black-sounding” names — but identical qualifications — were sent to various job postings: Per the study, those resumes with “black-sounding” names were 33 percent less likely to receive a callback. Being biased is an inherent part of being human, and it is important to consciously recognize those biases and eliminate any behavior that leads to discrimination.

Elsewhere, extensive research cited by the Journal of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation (JFS) points to the “pivotal role” minority recruiters play in persuading others to join a given industry or position [PDF link]. As the JFS notes, law enforcement organizations would be wise to pay attention to this point, given the erosive presence of the so-called Ferguson Effect: at a high level, images of minority mistreatment in the news may cause fewer minorities to apply for roles perceived to cause the mistreatment.

On the inverse of the Ferguson Effect, organizations truly wishing to hone their recruitment may wish to target materials towards the high-level motivations various gender/racial/ethnic identities tend to carry to the job. Per the JFS article, the difference between a black male and Hispanic female’s “drivers” can be markedly different, for just two examples. On average, research indicates the former applies to the job for the chance to help others, while the latter tends to join for a chance to “advance the laws of society.” This is a tricky subject that can quickly sway into insensitivity, but a smart recruitment drive under the hand of a knowledgeable consultant could do much to increase target hiring.

Training and policies

It may not be enough to tell potential recruits that a particular workplace will welcome them, or even to show them through diverse recruitment images. Providing the appropriate training will demonstrate in a tangible way that efforts are being made to reduce bias and promote a more egalitarian work environment. But who in a busy department has time to locate and schedule such specialized training, and then to make sure it’s been absorbed?

Departments that use FirstForward, a popular training and tracking software solution from Envisage Technologies, have access to a wide range of workplace training options, from vehicle safety to racial awareness and everything in between. And if a department establishes policies regarding attitudes and behavior on the job, that can go a long way toward changing the workplace culture to be more welcoming to diverse applicants.

To make sure employees are up-to-date, many departments use FirstForward Pro, which offers an easy way to record that employees have completed required training and acknowledged any policies that may have been put in place regarding racial or sexual bias and harassment. If an employee’s behavior crosses a line, the station has clear evidence that the workplace does not support such behavior, and that the individual was acting against acknowledged training and policies. Without such documentation, it is easy for one bad apple to drag the whole station — or even the municipality — into a position of legal culpability for allowing a hostile workplace. Training and compliance software like FirstForward Pro can promote a sense of unity and provide greater peace of mind for emergency crews and their supervisors.


As with any subject addressing topics as sensitive as race and gender, public safety agencies wishing to build a more diverse staff can, at times, feel like they are fighting an uphill battle. It is a challenge to develop a recruitment effort that hits the right notes without feeling as if it panders or seeks recruits for the wrong reasons. Positive prejudice is still prejudice, and all the good intentions in the world cannot erase the embarrassment, hurt feelings, and reputational harm that can come along with it.

By sharpening recruiting efforts and deploying with the right approach, agencies should more easily find targeted recruits from the specific groups they seek, an outcome with positive effects for everyone: recruiters, recruits, and the current personnel with whom they will work. While difficult, it can bring an agency the skills, qualifications, and impossible-to-replicate experience necessary to serve their respective community’s unique demographics — a goal even the most cynical onlooker would say is admirable.

Posted on Aug 13, 2019