Said Hammouche is a headhunter. But he doesn’t just wait until good resumes come across his desk in his company's main office in Paris. Instead, he goes looking for them well beyond the city limits – specifically in the banlieues that ring the French capital.
Mr. Hammouche is on a mission: to destigmatize the city's banlieues, the heavily immigrant and low-income suburbs, as places of social unrest, and more recently, brewing Muslim radicalism. Those perceptions can translate into youth unemployment rates that are at least double those in wealthier locales. “A lot of recruiters think there are too many problems in the banlieues," says Hammouche, who founded Mozaik. "Our goal is to destroy those stereotypes, to make recruiters think, ‘why not recruit in the banlieues?’”
His strongest selling point – at least for the company CEOs and government ministers who have lent Hammouche their ears – is that his strategy makes economic and social sense. In fact, it could offer solutions to two of France’s most pressing problems: sluggish growth and the economic inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities here.
The unemployment rate is about 25 percent for youths throughout France, but can reach as high as 45 to 50 percent in the banlieues. It is hard to break that down, as France does not keep statistics on ethnicity or race. But some of the disparity comes down to simple prejudice. The Paris-based Montaigne Institute last fall studied religious discrimination, and showed that for five CVs that someone with the name “Michel” sent to score an interview, “Mohammed” needed to send 20.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, carried out by Muslim radicals from the outskirts of Paris who were born in France to immigrant parents, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls spoke of “geographical, social, and ethnic apartheid.”
A recent report from France Strategie states that the French economy could gain 150 billion euros over 20 years if it eliminated workplace discrimination based on gender and ethnic identity. The study estimates France could see a 6.9 percent gain of its GDP during that time frame if it broadened access to jobs.
Ludovic Demierre, director of human resources and diversity development of VINCI, a multinational concessions and construction company headquartered outside Paris, says he sees Mozaik as a recruitment firm that helps the company in its goals to diversify – not as an nonprofit with a social goal.
“We are searching for the best candidates. We want to diversify, but we do not want only to do social action, or we risk not finding the best candidate,” Mr. Demierre says. “Mozaik finds the best candidate. With this method, discrimination can disappear.”
On a recent day at a Mozaik-run workshop, 14 candidates are talking about their strategies for finding jobs – and the obstacles they face – after completing undergraduate and advanced degrees. “I am here to learn how to convince someone to hire me,” says Aida Cisse, who is looking for a job in logistics.
Later, as she stands in front of the group to list her strengths and weaknesses, her trainer, Virginie Hamelin, implores her to use “I,” instead of “we,” as she describes her achievements in her past jobs, and be more precise and positive about what she has to offer.
Ms. Hamelin says her job is to help candidates learn how best to present themselves. But her assistance runs the gamut, from working with candidates to overcome shyness to helping them locate the right phone numbers. Many of them lack the right “codes," or "interpersonal skills,” she says, to access in the marketplace.
Nadege Brigitte, who has been looking for a job in communications since she graduated in 2013, says she cringes at the stigmas associated with the word banlieue. In her case, she chose to live in the suburbs outside Paris for a better quality of life, and she thinks the biggest obstacle for her job search is the market itself and the glut of communications majors. Still, she wonders if a Parisian address on her resume would yield a better response. “It depends on what neighborhood you live in, but if you live in one that is not prestigious, employers can pre-judge you,” she says.
The idea of “anonymous” or "blind" resumes has gained traction as a tool to fight against workforce discrimination. But when Mozaik came into operation in 2007, it sought to do the reverse. Among the 11,000 candidates it has worked with since, its goal is to show companies that candidates from the banlieues, or with foreign names, are the same as any other candidate.
“Many young people in disadvantaged neighborhoods complete their studies successfully. But as soon as they seek to join the workforce with their diplomas, they face discrimination. That is where the rupture is,” says Hammouche, the son of Moroccan immigrants. "That is the discrimination we need to fight against.”
And it can cut both ways, says Mr. Demairre of VINCI. “Some recruiters or managers have stereotypes about candidates coming from disadvantaged areas, and so don’t search for them, and perhaps some candidates have stereotypes about the companies, and perhaps don’t send in their applications,” he says.
Estelle Barthelemy, deputy general director of Mozaik, says companies are increasingly investing in social responsibility, and see the value in a workforce that more closely mirrors the diversity of their consumers and clients. But, she says, Mozaik's goal is to show companies what their clients have to offer their businesses. “We are not doing social work,” she says.
Social cohesion might ultimately be one of Mozaik’s strongest byproducts, though. Many of the problems in the banlieue, from which she herself hails, have grown precisely because of poor economic integration. “If the economy is OK, you have fewer social issues in disadvantaged areas,” she says. “When people are unemployed, it’s more than a pity, it’s economic craziness.”