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Could we be seeing the Rooney Rule in the boardroom?

Like me, you might think that the Rooney Rule sounds as if it has something to do with football – and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But rather than coming from football as we know it, the rule has its origins in the American National Football League (NFL) and is named after Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and chairman of the NFL’s diversity committee.

But what is the rule, and what does it have to do with employment law?

Under the Rooney Rule, when NFL teams recruit a new head coach or general they must interview at least one black or African-American candidate. Last week, the BBC reported that business leaders in the US and the UK have voiced their support for the rule as a potential way in which to increase diversity among senior management. It may also soon find its way into the English Football Association.

The BBC article highlighted the lack of ethnic diversity in British boardrooms, particularly the fact that more than half of FTSE 100 firms have no non-white leaders at board level. The Rooney Rule could provide an alternative to quotas, a more controversial method of ensuring diversity. Last year the EU voted in favour of introducing legal quotas for women in the boardroom, something the House of Lords EU Committee has deemed “misguided”. Rather than setting mandatory targets for businesses, the Rooney Rule encourages recruitment from as wide and diverse a pool as possible, leaving firms with the ultimate decision as to who to recruit and ensuring they can choose the best candidate for the job.

Later this month, Vince Cable is launching a plan to increase ethnic diversity in British boardrooms. The aim is to ensure that one in five directors at board level come from a non-white background, which he hopes will be achieved within the next five years. This is the latest in a series of efforts by the government to increase diversity in British boardrooms, following the government’s attempts to ensure greater female representation on boards.

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