What Factors Block Career Paths?

8 minute read

There’s no such thing as an ideal career path. Instead, we move upwards, sideways and sometimes even take a step back in the process of trying to build that oh-so-hard-to-achieve ‘perfect career’. One that supports our changing priorities outside of work, stays interesting and where we feel valued.

Building a career that ticks those boxes isn’t easy, not least because we all have different backgrounds, life experiences and responsibilities. Career paths get stuck and it can be hard to navigate through certain critical junctures.

So if you’re finding it difficult to break into the charity sector, or feel that you’re hitting the same roadblocks again and again, you’re not alone. Here are a few things to look out for—and ways of challenging those obstacles in your way.

What Factors Block Career Paths?

‘Degree level qualification required’

Too many jobs ask for a degree as a default requirement without thinking about what it brings to that role. To the recruiter, it can be shorthand for saying they want someone bright and who can stay the course. But you don’t need a degree to be that person—especially if you can prove you have relevant skills and experience.

That’s why the campaign group #NonGraduatesWelcome is challenging the need for a degree in the charity sector. Their manifesto calls on employers to stop putting a degree as a requirement for fundraising jobs and excluding good candidates on a technicality.

It’s bad for the diversity of the sector since it favours sections of society still more likely to benefit from degree-level education. And surely having relevant volunteer experience should be seen as just as important as a non-specific degree.

What to do if you encounter this:

Our advice? Go for it anyway. You can’t lie but you can argue the case that your skills and experience put you at ‘degree level’.

Bear in mind too that, despite what’s in the job description, many employers share a view that graduates are lacking key skills. They’ll be looking for a range of skills developed at work including empathy, the ability to work in a team and common sense.

And plenty of employers in the charity sector will be more interested in your job history and volunteering than a non-specific degree—particularly when you’re further into your career.



A criminal record: Ban the box

We’re shaped by our past, but we shouldn’t be diminished by it. So why does a criminal record keep so many valuable candidates from doing great work in the charity sector?

Candidates are being put off from even applying for jobs—or pursuing their chosen career path—because they have a criminal record and know it may mean they’re screened out of an application before getting a chance to prove themselves.

Application forms with an automatic question about whether a candidate has a criminal record can deter people from applying. Further along the process, perhaps at interview stage, there could be a fair discussion about the offence and its relevance, rather than: That person has a record, so we won’t hire them.

Helen Berresford, External Director of Nacro, Director magazine

What to do if you encounter this:

First, don’t be deterred. Unlock’s Ban the Box campaign in the UK is working to turn this around and they’re a great source of advice if you find yourself in this position.

Then know your rights. It’s unlawful for an employer to carry out a criminal record check at a level inappropriate for that role. And if your conviction is ‘spent’, you don’t need to tick that box in the first place.

What Factors Block Career Paths?

Discrimination at a job seeker level

It’s against the law to discriminate against a candidate on account of their ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion or because of a physical disability. Despite this, it’s a very real problem for a lot of people.

According to our own research in 2018, 27% of candidates felt they’d experienced ethnic discrimination in the sector. And many think the charity sector is still ‘too white’ with too few BAME people in senior management roles and application processes that encourage the replacement of ‘like with like’. i.e. by using the same recruitment channels they’re limiting their talent pool.

That’s why movements like #CharitySoWhite are ripping through social media, calling for ‘urgent action’ on what they see as racism in the charity sector. And this doesn’t just hold true to the application stage—they’re looking to change sector behaviours in the workplace as a whole, making the sector a more inclusive place to work.

What to do if you encounter this:

If you feel you’ve been discriminated against—either at work or during the application process—then the first thing you should do is raise it directly with your employer, or the recruiter. You should also read up on the Equality Act and go to Citizens Advice for guidance on the possible next steps.

Other sources of information and support are available from your union, ACAS and GOV.UK.


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Too old? Too young? Why, should it matter?

This same research also told us that 40% of our candidates felt they’d been discriminated against because of their age; too old was the main complaint.

This isn’t unique to charities. The gig economy, later retirement ages and a work culture of job-hopping rather than internal promotions are all factors at play. The truth is, we’re all going to need to work for longer and people in their 40s, 50s and 60s want—and need—to continue to develop their career path.

What to do if you encounter this:

Age discrimination is illegal, but it can be hard to pinpoint. If you think you’re being overlooked for a role or a promotion because of your age, then you need to challenge it directly. And get all the advice you can—from CAB, gov.uk as well as charities like Age UK.

Also, don’t back down. If there’s a job you want and you feel qualified to take it on then you must put yourself in the frame for it.

What Factors Block Career Paths?

Life happens—responsibilities shouldn’t hold you back

Life has a habit of getting in the way and things happen outside of work that can make it extremely difficult to hold down your job, leave alone apply for new jobs and move forward.

Sooner or later you could find you’re affected by caring responsibilities—whether it’s young children, elderly parents, a partner’s health or your own health. Or you may experience a traumatic life event and you need time to recover.

No one is immune to these things. Michelle Obama has spoken openly about struggling to balance childcare with full-time work at a time when she was also the main breadwinner at home; taking her four-month-old baby to an interview for a new job at a hospital because she didn’t have a babysitter.

‘I thought, look, this is who I am. I’ve got a husband who’s away. I’ve got two little babies. They are my priority. If you want me to do the job, you’ve got to pay me to do the job and you’ve got to give me flexibility.’

Her honesty paid off and she ended up having a long career at that hospital.

‘It was one of the best experiences that I had because (my employer) put my family first and I felt like I owed that hospital because they were supporting me.’

No matter how hard things are at home, the important thing is to hold on to a clear view of your worth in good times—and know that consideration and flexibility from your employer, or future employer, will be rewarded by your commitment. And if you do end up having to take a career break or hold off on a move—it’s not a failure, but a way of dealing with what’s on your plate right now that puts you and your family’s well-being first.

What to do if you encounter this in your current job:

Don’t battle on without support from your employer or a charity specialising in these causes. Choose who’s best to speak to first; whether that’s HR or if it’s more appropriate for you to first share the issues you’re having with your direct boss. Charities like Macmillan Cancer Care and Marie Curie also have really useful advice as do organisations like Carers UK and Citizens Advice.

Remember, most people will find they have to cope with this kind of difficult situation at some stage—if it doesn’t directly affect your career, then maybe it’s your partner’s career. Flexible working, reduced hours, working from home or a career break are all options to consider and discuss with your employer.



Most importantly, don’t let these roadblocks define you

We all come from different experiences, different cultures. No two paths are the same, and you shouldn’t let the rejection define you. If you encounter some of these roadblocks, keep pushing forward.

A career is a process of constant adjustment and honest re-appraisal of what you want to be doing—and what you’re prepared to do to get there. But if there are things in your way that are unfair or unjust than you owe it yourself to act and assert your right to have the same opportunities as anyone else.

Jean Merrylees

Jean Merrylees is a freelance content writer and editor who has previously written for the BBC. Jean is now taking her first steps into the charity sector after spending some time writing for both Diabetes UK & CharityJob.

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