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Recruitment search for a white male beyond the pale

On the morning of August 11, Julian Schlemmer, the founder of Schlemmer & Associates, a Durban-based recruitment agency, sent out an email to his three consultants.

In the email, with the subject line “SMG — Marketing Manager”, was the “[n]ew spec from SMG for a Marketing Manager. Ideal candidate youngish white Male or Female (slightly prefer male). Wants a nice calibre candidate, good school, good qualifications,” Schlemmer wrote.

He then went on to describe in detail the requirements for the R25 000-a-month position at Sean McCarthy Group (SMG), one of the largest chains of luxury car dealerships in the country, with 15 branches and four service centres in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.

The company sells Land Rover, BMW, Mini, Toyota and Lexus vehicles. It told the Mail & Guardian it did not ask Schlemmer to look for this position and that he acted unilaterally.

An advert was also placed by Schlemmer’s recruitment agency on the Pnet.co.za jobs website, stating that “our client, a reputable automotive industry dealership, is looking for an experienced Marketing Manager to join their team”, and again listed the various responsibilities, qualifications and duties for the position.

The advert made clear that the position was “Non EE/AA” (non-employment equity/affirmative action) suggesting, according to labour lawyers, that the position was not subject to affirmative action or the employment equity prescripts set out in the Employment Equity Act; that, dismissive of apartheid-era discrimination and injustices, the search was on for a white person.

On August 26, the Mail & Guardian visited the Pnet website and confirmed that of the 11 jobs Schlemmer’s recruitment agency had advertised, nine of them were advertised as “Non-EE/AA”.

On August 19, eight days after Schlemmer’s email directing his staff to look for white men had been sent out, the M&G contacted him for comment on what seems to be racial profiling of candidates and job reservation for pale males.

Pervasive preference

The white race group is a category of employees — together with the “Indian” race group — that, according to the Commission for Employment Equity’s 2019-2020 annual report released in mid-August, remains generally “over-represented against their national economically active population”. 

The economically active population is considered to be people between the ages 15 to 64, who are either employed, or unemployed, but seeking employment.

The report confirmed “an apparent pervasive and persistent preference in the appointment, promotion and development of the white and Indian population groups, particularly at the top two occupational levels”.

The report found that, in 2019, white people occupied 65.6% of top management positions in the country, compared with 66.5% in 2018 and 67.7% in 2017. 

In comparison, black Africans filled 15.2% of management positions in 2019, a 0.1% increase from the previous year.

Men also occupied 75.6% of top management positions, compared with women at 24.4%.

A prospective applicant 

Caelin Roodt, a prospective applicant for the marketing-manager position, said that, on August 11, hours after the email was sent out, she had been approached by one of Schlemmer’s employees, Jessie Buxton, to apply for the position and that the specs had been emailed to her.

In a telephone conversation with Buxton, the recruitment specialist had, according to Roodt, “mentioned that they were specifically looking for a white male, but that the employer would be open to a white female”.

Roodt added: “When I challenged her about the racial requirements for the job, she stumbled a bit and said it was probably due to the corporate culture [at SMG] and more than likely because I would be reporting to a white male, at which point I was left dumbstruck.”

Julian Schlemmer.

When first confronted by the M&G on August 20, Schlemmer initially dismissed the newspaper’s questions about racial profiling, saying it wasn’t an issue because “that specific role has been withdrawn, so we are no longer searching”.

When pressed on the contents of his email to staff and why he had directed them to search for white male candidates to fill the position, Schlemmer refused to answer the specific questions. “What I will say is that we have no racial bias whatsoever; we try to find the best candidate for our client,” he said. “I certainly have no racial bias. I come from a very liberal background.”

Schlemmer said “we never got a spec from a client”. Where did Schlemmer then get the detail regarding the position, its requirements, the remuneration package and so on? “That’s my business, but what I can tell you is that there was no formal spec from SMG,” he said.

So was there an informal briefing by SMG or one of its managers? Or was the advert a complete, but extremely detailed, thumb-suck by Julian Schlemmer? How did Buxton know about the “corporate culture” at SMG?

SMG’s response

Last week, the M&G sought to clarify the matter and approached members of SMG’s management structure at its Umhlanga and Durban Central branches. According to internal correspondence at Schlemmer & Associates, the marketing manager would be based at either one of these two branches.

Trevor Meyer, an SMG director, 4.9% shareholder in the company and dealer principal at the Durban branch, said he was not aware of any vacancy and that “we’re not hiring anybody at the moment”.

Travis Harvey, the financial manager at the SMG Umhlanga branch, also confirmed that “we are not actively hiring at the moment”.

According to Eugene Roden in SMG’s corporate finance division, whom the company’s founder, Sean McCarthy, had tasked with dealing with the M&G’s queries on Wednesday last week, the newspaper’s inquiries had caused Meyer to contact Schlemmer last Tuesday to “investigate the matter”.

In an email Schlemmer sent to Meyer on Tuesday afternoon, “apologising for any inconvenience caused”, he claims to have heard “through the Durban market, of a potential vacancy at SMG as a result of a manager leaving”.

Schlemmer goes on to state that he had “decided to be proactive and start searching for potential candidates” and that he “was never given a job specification or brief from SMG in order to advertise for these candidates”.

Schlemmer’s reasoning behind directing his all-white staff to look for white candidates for SMG was that he had enough employment equity candidates “on file” and he wanted to include “possible white candidates as well in order to offer a complete representation of candidates” to SMG.

Similar responses were sent to the M&G last Wednesday afternoon by Schlemmer.

Schlemmer both confirmed that the company had not shown the employment-equity plan to the recruitment agency. The plan, according to labour lawyers, would have informed any reasoning on Schlemmer’s part as to whether SMG had enough black employees in management positions to allow it to hire another white male.

‘Unfair discrimination’ 

According to Komnas Poriazis, of the Casual Workers Advice Office, “Schlemmer’s ‘explanation’” for the “initial focus” on “white candidates” would probably not be sufficient to “rebut the presumption that the privileging of white candidates amounts to unfair discrimination or to justify this discriminatory practice on the part of the recruitment firm”.

“Offering a ‘complete representation of candidates’ is simply not required by the Employment Equity Act (EEA) or any other law. There are no policy or legal reasons why the candidate pool for any position should include white people,” he added. “The [email] specification of the ‘ideal candidate’ for the marketing manager by Schlemmer & Associates prioritises white candidates for this position over all others on the basis of their race.”

Poriazis said that “at the very least, Schlemmer & Associates are, therefore, probably guilty of engaging in discriminatory practices in relation to recruitment”.

“Even if the EEA does not apply in these circumstances, say, because the candidates for the position are not yet job applicants on Schlemmer’s version, the practice engaged in by Schlemmer & Associates would probably amount to unfair discrimination for the purposes of section 9(4) of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race between private persons,” said Poriazis.

Tabea Kabinde, the chairperson of the Commission for Employment Equity, said in a press release when its report was released that the glacial pace of transformation  “does worry me … The bottom line is that there is no will to effect transformation.”

On Wednesday morning last week, SMG’s founder, Sean McCarthy, said his company is “an equal-opportunity employer” that does not “tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind” and that this behaviour was “foreign to the SMG culture”.

SMG responds again

McCarthy and Schlemmer had, initially, ignored several specific questions including whether Schlemmer had recruited staff for SMG previously — specifically black Africans — and how many women and black Africans filled management positions at the company.

Nor did McCarthy, last week, answer as to how Schlemmer would have received such granular detail about the vacancy. Schlemmer noted that the R25 000-a-month position would relate to both digital and classical marketing, the former being “important” because, according to the email, SMG “want to be at the forefront on Google searches. They also do email marketing campaigns etc. This role will also work with the advertising agency for design of adverts etc. Some copywriting experience is also good to have.”

On August 31, the M&G published a version of this story online. This led to ANC MP Faiez Jacobs, writing to Ebrahim Patel, the minister of trade and industry, asking him to investigate SMG. 

McCarthy also contacted the newspaper and requested that the story be withdrawn. The M&G refused to do so, indicating that McCarthy could answer the questions put to him or contact the press ombudsman. On Wednesday, McCarthy finally responded to our questions. McCarthy confirmed that Schlemmer’s company had previously been used by the Durban branch of SMG, where Meyer is dealership manager. Schlemmer had recruited three employees — all white — for SMG over the past five years. McCarthy said 19% of the company’s management positions were occupied by women, and “of the total complement of managers”, 28% “are black Africans” and 27% were white men.

McCarthy also confirmed that Meyer is an “acquaintance” of Schlemmer “as they are part of the same running club”. 

According to McCarthy, Schlemmer had enquired from Meyer during an “informal discussion” about a vacancy that was opening at SMG. 

“Meyer explained that someone in the marketing team of SMG was emigrating to the [United Kingdom]. Meyer said nothing else to Schlemmer concerning [the] employee or his position and in no way gave Schlemmer any mandate whatsoever.

“A day or so later, Meyer received a few unsolicited CVs from Schlemmer. (I might add that recruiters are often proactive, knowing that, if they place an employee, they will earn a fee.) However, Meyer contacted Schlemmer, advising him that SMG was not seeking to employ anyone to fill the position in question and was, in fact, not hiring at all at that stage,” said McCarthy. 

He added that Meyer had not provided Schlemmer with the “specs” contained in the advert or the internal email message. 

When asked whether SMG and Schlemmer & Associates could be investigated by the department of labour for discriminatory labour practices, Virgil Seafield, the deputy director-general of labour policy and industrial relations in the department, said that if it did not address the requirements of the Employment Equity Act then such behaviour should “be investigated and the proper sanction in terms of our law [be] applied”.

He added that to make such a decision the department would have to “look at the workforce profile of the company [and] whether it reflects an over-representation of designated groups and whether the intention is to only employ non-designated groups. This can only be done when a proper inspection is conducted.”

Amendments to the Act will soon be tabled before Parliament. These include giving the minister of labour power to set transformation targets for specific sectors.

Asked whether the minister had considered setting targets for the vehicle-sales and human-resources and recruitment sectors, Seafield said the rate of transformation at senior management level had been “extremely slow”. 

He added that, as soon as the amendments had become law, the minister would consult the Commission for Employment Equity to consider setting sectoral targets.

This story has been updated to reflect new developments, as well as outstanding comment received from SMG

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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