Positive Action - A Guide for Recruiters




What is it?

Positive action is a set of lawful steps that an employer can take to help address imbalances in their workforce.

Appointments are still made on merit of skill and experiences but Positive Action allows under-represented groups with protected characteristics to overcome barriers when competing with other applicants*.

Positive Action can be used to attract people into roles where they are currently under-represented for example, female engineers. In order to use the action, you have to be clear what the under-representation is and apply a proportional measure.

The following are protected characteristics:


Age Disability Gender Gender Reassignment Marriage & Civil Partnership
Pregnancy & Maternity Race Religion or belief (or lack of) Sexuality



Is it legal?

The Equality Law 2010 states that Positive action can be lawfully taken to encourage and train people from under-represented groups to help them overcome disadvantages in competing with other applicants.

This is different to Positive Discrimination which sets quotas or gives preferential treatment to someone with a protected characteristic. Positive Discrimination is unlawful in the UK. 

Positive Action does not allow jobs to be ring-fenced. The only way to ring-fence vacancies is by showing that having a certain characteristic (or not having a certain characteristic) is an occupational requirement for the job. For example, a post for a member of security might need to be ring-fenced for females if there is an occupational need to conduct same sex searches in an organisation that has many females but lacks female security members. 

*A special exception exists for disability. Recruiters can judge that a candidate's disability has had an overall and detrimental effect in their lives thus allowing the recruiter to treat disabled candidates more favourably.

For example, a department with 80 staff has no disabled workers. For a new role in the department, they guarantee that all disabled applicants get an interview for the post. 

This should be done on a case by case basis for each role and not used as a general policy.



Why is it important?

We know that when people come together with different views, approaches and insights it can lead to richer, more creative and innovative teaching and research and the highest level of student experience. Positive Action is just one of the steps that we can take in order to create a more diverse workforce by giving those who are underrepresented or disadvantaged more tools to be competitive.

It also helps us to fulfil legal obligations under the Public Sector Equality Duty and helps to achieve the aims set out in the University's strategies. 


To be One University

Our people are the key to our success. We aim to attract a diverse community of staff and students from a broad range of backgrounds, demographics and cultures, and create an inclusive environment in which everyone can succeed and flourish. We want to foster a culture in which everyone is united around our shared vision, values and common purpose, and in which individuals are active participants and stakeholders in the success of the University.

- Vision Green Paper.

But in order to achieve this, quotas and blanket policies should not be used to progress people with certain characteristics.





How can it be used?

Before you can use Positive Action, familiarise yourself with the Workforce Planning guides.

So that you know when to use Positive Action, look at the current makeup of your team and identify the needs of the role. If you are replacing a member of staff, do not just think of finding someone who is most like the previous person, think of what the role requires now and what the role will require in the future in line with the University's Strategic Aims.

You can use the Diversity Wheel at the bottom of this page to consider how this role will compliment the current makeup of your team/department. Positive Action initiatives cannot be generalised across the entire University, they must be done locally within your team.

Then based on the previous steps, you may use Positive Action to support the under-represented or disadvantaged individuals that you have identified. Positive Action steps that you can take include:

  • advertising the post in specific places - you may choose to use a recruitment agency or network that specialises/has an influence within a particular sector or to a particular group.
  • providing more training and guidance for candidates so that they are more qualified to navigate through the recruitment process - you can hold open days, invite candidates to shadow a staff member in the team, or provide verbal advice on what the role requires.
  • using tools such as Textio to ensure that gender neutral language is used.
  • include ED&I specific text in the job advert such as: 

"As an equal opportunities employer, we particularly welcome applications from Women and Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds as they are currently underrepresented at this level in this area. All appointments will be made on merit of skill and experience relative to the role."

  • guaranteeing an interview for disabled candidates via policies such as the Disability Confident scheme.
  • and using the tie-breaker clause 

Tie-Breaker Clause

This allows recruiters & promoters who have two candidates who are equally as good as each other to progress the one who is disproportionately under-represented or disadvantaged within the workforce.

In practice, the tie-breaker clause will rarely be applicable. To use it, recruiters and promoters should ensure that:

  • the bar that is set to judge candidates is high enough since an artificially low bar would create more candidates who are on paper equal to each other
  • there isn't a general policy to favour people with that characteristic
  • the response to hire that person is proportionate to the under-representation that is being address. 

If you require more guidance, please contact the ED&I team: HREquality@sheffield.ac.uk



Diversity Wheel

You can use the Diversity Wheel below to help you understand what attributes the ideal candidate needs to have to compliment your existing team/department.

Diversity Wheel