PROFILE: Keith Rosser - Making the world of work safer

Keith Rosser, director at Reed Screening, believes Right to Work checks and hiring must become more digital to increase the safety for workers and jobseekers

When Recruiter caught up with Keith Rosser, group director of recruitment business, Reed, and director of Reed Screening, he had just finished speaking to MPs about the need for digital Right to Work checks to remain in place after the pandemic. Rosser played a decisive role in the campaign to get the digital checks extended until 1 September when, at the time of writing, the plan is for them to revert to physical checks.

“Right to Work is going backwards,” he says. “We’ve got this new-found flexible or hybrid remote working model, which sees people in Cornwall working for an IT firm in Manchester, so it’s simply not practical to go back to physical checks.”

Rosser’s overarching mission is to make the world of work safer for workers, jobseekers and employers. To achieve this, he contends hiring must become more digital. And there is also an economic imperative for this to happen. “We’re about to embark on a post-lockdown labour market, and the things we need to underpin seamless recruitment aren’t in place yet,” he says.

Continuing, he says: “We need to be able to validate people’s credentials digitally whether that be via blockchain or some other method. We have an outdated way of supporting hiring and recruitment in the UK and we need to change that after Covid, which is why I’m pushing the digital hiring agenda.”

Rosser’s own credentials to lead such campaigns as well as define and implement this digital future are top-class. Reed Screening, established in 2011, has grown into one of the UK’s largest screening organisations and runs as a separate business. It provides employment background checks on permanent and supply workers for a range of companies and sectors, as well as Reed clients. He is also responsible for Reed Group’s risk and corporate governance agenda, sitting on the audit and risk committee at board level.

While these are the day jobs, he wears a number of different hats that help to further the cause, including being chair of the Better Hiring Institute (BHI). Set up as a partnership between the UK government and industry, the BHI aims to help modernise hiring, steer ethical hiring and develop digital pathways. Its advisory board includes the Disclosure & Barring Service (DBS) and Cifas, the non-profit that aims to reduce and prevent fraud and financial crime in the UK, of which Rosser is also an advisory board member.

He is also a council member of the European global pre-employment vetting trade association, the PBSA (Professional Background Screening Association), and chair of the Criminal Records Trade Body (CRTB). In addition, he is chair of JobsAware, a charity founded by the Metropolitan Police that tackles labour market exploitation targeting vulnerable workers.

We have an outdated way of supporting hiring and recruitment in the UK and we need to change that after Covid”

Supporting digital hiring

To push the digital hiring agenda, Rosser knows he is up against a chequered landscape when it comes to the use of digital tools that support hiring and screening. “As well as plans for Right to Work to go back to physical checks and the problems this brings, we’ve also got the issue of employment blackspots. So, people who live in areas where there’s low employment won’t have physical offices to go and get a job in. Then you’ve got things like qualification checks: you can’t really say it’s technology-driven if someone emails a certificate. Referencing is tech-enabled, in some cases, but you still have a lot of people doing it the old-fashioned way and phoning people up.”

There are pockets of more progressive practices with Disclosure Scotland, at which Rosser has served five years as a non-executive director, having gone digital but this is by no means the norm.

Unless the shift to more digital processes and mindsets is made, there is no doubt in Rosser’s mind that the UK is storing up serious labour market problems for the future. Employers will find it faster, easier and cheaper to hire non-UK nationals, who are able to validate themselves to work digitally online. “So, you’ll have this imbalance in the labour market. In addition, we’ll have an even bigger problem with skills shortages because people can’t be recruited fast enough.”

Rosser has no shortage of ideas or projects in mind and underway to enable digital hiring. He advocates a Right to Work system that enables employers to validate whether a British or Irish passport is accurate with the Passport Office.

A lot of these people will have non-normalised CVs with gaps in them”

For education credentialling, he is involved in a project with the Open University and a tech start-up to explore the use of a system that educationalists can use for free to validate school, college and university qualifications, that private sector training providers could use for free to validate qualifications, while employers would pay a small transactional fee to use it. Another approach could involve a digital wallet that the employer pays to access.

Two steps for change

Rosser reckons bringing about the required change will mean a two-step process. Step one is to realise “digital hiring lite” – so interviewing a person online, offering them the job and screening them digitally before physically meeting them. Step two is taking this as a base and turning it into a fully effective digitised process using, perhaps, a distributed ledger technology such as blockchain or similar. Unless step one is achieved within a calendar year, he fears the UK will lose competitive edge. “If we are to build back better and compete internationally, we’ve got to be able to do this in a year,” he says. “We’ve heard from global employers who say that if they’re going to have to go back to physical documents, they’ll move the jobs out of the UK because it’s easier for them recruit from outside.”

He goes on to say: “The timeline for ambition two is more like five years away because of the massive different datasets and different government departments involved to bring it altogether in a coherent process.”

Rosser acknowledges that the use of technology has potential downsides and stresses how ethical hiring priorities must be embedded into digital processes. This is particularly pertinent to any discussion on non-normalised careers and how these might be adversely impacted by any kind of filtering technology. This understanding stems from another role he holds – chair of Release Scotland, which works with the Scottish Government on criminal record reforms and helping those with convictions find work.

“A lot of these people will have non-normalised CVs with gaps in them and what we worry about is that the rise of technology makes it even harder for them to enter the labour market,” he says, adding that he continues to be amazed that recruitment is still “clinging on to things like CVs”.

In his view, a job advert should present the set of skills, experience, competencies that the organisation needs and a job application should be a response to how the individual meets them. “A CV is pretty irrelevant now,” he says.

It isn’t just in the area of tools and processes that hiring needs to evolve but also the bigger picture, believes Rosser, highlighting how legislation related to recruitment agencies was first written in 1973 at a time when the industry was more about cards in shop windows than what it is today. The regulatory position around ‘What is a recruiter?’ is another area of focus for him and, with the rise of technology, the questions of ‘What are an app and a platform?’ must be considered in a recruiting context.

He has been in discussion about what future recruitment agency legislation might look like with Labour Market Enforcement officials and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and warns that increased

digitisation could find a marketplace that is offshored, with recruitment operations effectively platforms. “So, what will they be regulating?” he asks.

“With my JobsAware hat on, I think the Employment Bill [Editor’s note: this Bill does not yet exist] is a big opportunity to make sure that we’re balancing the progress of technology without eroding worker rights. There is a scenario in my mind that a recruitment app, for instance based in Germany, is operating in the UK and placing people into work with a disguised employment relationship, where it isn’t clear to the worker who their employer is or what their rights are. The legislation needs to be future-proofed.”

Like many, Rosser has first-hand experience of living in the new world of work. He’s welcomed the additional quality time lockdown has given him with his three young children, although admits being on Microsoft Teams for a meeting while a home learning class is also taking place can have its challenges. He lives in Glasgow and with Reed Screening’s office in Manchester, his return-to-office model will be a flexible, hybrid one.

As well as his various hats, he’s keen to highlight the rise of recruitment scams, ranging from fake job adverts (which increased by 70% during the pandemic) designed to extract personal information from jobseekers or in some cases money in exchange for a uniform or training. Also on the rise, he says, is fraud by contractors against recruitment agencies.

His motivation to make the world of work a safer place for everyone will continue to drive him – and the more hats he wears, he believes, the more likely he is to achieve his aims: “Could I achieve as much if I was only at Reed? I think it would be more difficult. Could I achieve as much without Reed? I also think it would be more difficult.”

Image credit | Andy-Buchanan

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