Serena Bhandari - Jobstacle Course

It’s the end of the month and that means it’s time to hear from resident guest blogger Serena. This month Serena’s sharing her experience of job hunting as someone with Tourettes. While job hunting is stressful for lots of people, I’m very aware of the added pressures that having Tourettes can bring. What I had no idea about was how complex and discriminatory applying for graduate jobs had become. As I read Serena’s important and enlightening post, I let out a series of increasingly shocked and exasperated noises. Get ready to join Serena in her quest for work.

When I graduated from UCL in September 2019 I had no idea what the next few months would bring. Towards the end of the winter term of my final year I’d been struck down by a nasty bout of glandular fever. With the combination of being sick and the ensuing months of catch-up that I needed to stay on top of my degree, job-hunting had been the last thing on my mind.

I knew it would be difficult, having watched countless friends before me attempt the seemingly futile task of finding a first job. But I didn’t realise how much having Tourettes would affect the job-seeking process. Despite potential employers being required by law to provide ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the application process, it’s often not so simple in practice.

I would argue that for a lot of graduate jobs, there’s a significant barrier to entry for neurodiverse and disabled people. I like to call this barrier the “glass staircase”. YouTuber Gem Hubbard is a wheelchair user and has a great video on the concept, but I’d like to extend her metaphor beyond physical impairments because I believe it provides a useful framework to understand the job-hunting process for those with invisible or neurological disabilities too.

For all intents and purposes, the “staircase” is the relatively streamlined application process for jobs, that appears simple to non-disabled people, but which has plenty of obstacles for disabled people.

While it’s possible to negotiate the staircase when companies meet an individual’s access requirements, this often requires disabled applicants to put in significantly more time and effort than their non-disabled peers. We are constantly dependent on other people to allow us to continue in the application process without disadvantage.

Having to explain the same thing again and again at different stages, to different people, at different employers, is mentally strenuous and time-consuming – and used to regularly makes me wonder if what’s at the top is even worth it if it’s so much of a hassle getting there.

To make it even worse, the whole time you’re watching non-disabled people tackle the staircase without even thinking about it. Of course, I’m not saying that non-disabled people all find job applications super easy – but I will say that they don’t have the added stress of ensuring that their access requirements are met.

I applied for at least 25 different graduate training jobs and for most of them the process was equally non-accessible. The first step was always to fill out a form with personal information, academic records and work experience, and perhaps with an additional cover letter and CV. Then if you met the minimum requirements for the job, the next stage was a test of some sort. This could be an online simulation of a situation you might face in the job, or even just a basic verbal and numerical reasoning test. If you weren’t screened out based on test results, stage three was the dreaded video interview. This was usually the penultimate step before the final obstacle: the in-person assessment day.

The uniformity across applications was good in that with each successive application I learned more of what was expected of me, but bad because I’d often face the same problems again and again with each company I approached.

For example, for non-disabled or neurotypical applicants, the testing stage of the application was likely to be stressful but likely not to be too complicated to complete. However, I can attest that as an applicant with access requirements, this tended not to be the case.

During one of my applications when I tried to secure extra time for a test with a well-known consumer goods company, I discovered that there was no obvious recruitment contact – only a customer service contact for the company’s client-facing services.

For several other companies it took days if not weeks before I got a response – and a couple even deactivated my application as they assumed that I had lost interest in the job having not proceeded with the test within a set amount of time. This was of course the time that had been spent trying to get my test accommodations. I could re-activate it but only if I managed to get in touch with HR. Cue more frantic emails.

But that wasn’t even the worst bit. In recent years gamified psychometric tests have become a popular way to evaluate stressed-out grads. These involve candidates playing bite-sized, rapid response games which supposedly provide a more reliable indicator of personality and behavioural traits, including memory, decision-making speed and judgement, than traditional self-reported questionnaires.

The company that appears to be leading the industry in producing custom assessments of this variety for grad scheme recruiters is called Pymetrics. A lot of the Pymetrics games rely on the control mechanism of tapping a key or clicking a button at certain time intervals or in response to on-screen stimuli. Having applied a couple of years previously for internships that used Pymetrics testing to recruit, I knew that my limited motor control due to tics would affect the test’s validity for assessing my abilities. I was only able to identify this, however, because of my past experience. But how many first-time applicants went in with little knowledge of what to expect, only to realise that the test disadvantages them because of their disability?

When I delved deeper into the Pymetrics website I found a document stating that their tests were unsuitable for accurate assessment of applicants with movement conditions. Unfortunately, recruiters at the companies using Pymetrics often didn’t know this, so I then had the task of making them aware and requesting an alternative assessment – if there was one available.

In later stages of applications, I’ve had to complete a “video interview” segment. This basically involves receiving a pre-recorded prompt or question spoken by a smiley employee and then being given two to three minutes to come up with and film yourself giving an acceptable answer. Sometimes companies would only give you one take to get everything right. You might think that my tics would make this difficult: you’d be right!

For the first video interview I did, the company made a big deal about how exciting it was that AI would be analysing our interviews – body language and all. I’m sure that to many applicants this seemed like an impressive use of tech, but all I could think about was whether or not the AI would be able to suitably recognise my tics as tics – and not “nervous body language” or “signs of disinterest” or “disengagement with the topic”. I couldn’t help but think it was unlikely – and since it was AI, it’s not as if I could call it up in advance to tell it about my disability. So, the pressure was heightened further in an already stressful situation, which ironically made my tics worse. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t pass that interview.

At this point I hope it’s obvious how much extra labour goes into my, and other disabled candidates’, applications to ensure that we’re on a level playing field. If a workplace is aware of my Tourettes, I see no reason why I shouldn’t perform at the same level as any neurotypical or non-disabled person.

I made it to the top of the staircase when I received a job offer in January this year. By then I’d come close to giving up at so many stages because of how much harder the process was than it needed to be. At that point I’d probably sent close to 100 extra emails for reasonable adjustments and spent hours of my life on the phone speaking to clueless recruiters. It was tiring and at times dehumanising when it felt as if even the simplest of requests was being dealt with clumsily.

So, to those applying for jobs and struggling, don’t give up. It’s hard, but change won’t happen if we’re not in those workplaces to hold people accountable. And if you’re a recruiter, or someone advertising a job, strive to do better. A diversity and inclusion initiative means nothing if it’s tokenistic and excludes disabled people.

What is clear from Serena’s accounts is how little disabled applicants and their access needs are considered. I’m fairly sure that most recruiters would say they value diversity, but as Serena points out, this is meaningless if it’s not backed up by actions that equalise opportunity. Thank you, Serena, for sharing your experiences of this process so openly, and good luck in your new job.

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