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My Journey to Eliminate Systemic Bias in Recruiting

Posted by Kim Kistner on June 23, 2020

As a strategic recruiting leader, I’m committed to helping bring about a more just and equitable society. That's why I am sharing my journey.

Those of us who work in recruiting and hiring have a real opportunity to make an impact, and an obligation to ensure our hiring practices eliminate bias to every extent possible. My hope is that this post can help other recruiters who are on the same path. My focus is on examining our existing structures and implementing processes that ensure we are thoroughly and fairly considering qualified, diverse candidates from every perspective, including race, but also gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, and national origin.

Implicit bias is becoming more widely acknowledged within the realm of recruiting and hiring. But as important as it is to work on our individual perspectives, I believe changing the systems and processes that perpetuate inequitable hiring is a better way to institute broad and lasting change. At Staffing Advisors, we have always followed the research, so we have long recommended an evidence-based approach to hiring. And we continue to learn new ways to achieve that goal for ourselves and our clients. Clearly, there are no easy answers for how to right the wrongs of centuries of racism and discrimination but here are some ways we can begin to chip away at the hiring processes that have allowed all types of discrimination to continue.

Use your diversity statement as a differentiator

Like most employers, we have long had a powerful statement about diversity and inclusion in all of our hiring touchpoints. But we realized we should demonstrate the actions we are taking. We encourage other employers to use their statements to make a business case for diversity. Use your website, your blog, or your marketing materials to highlight what diversity means to your organization and show how you are taking identifiable steps to build a culture of inclusion. Here’s a great example of the work going on at Cisco.

Check your language

Take a hard look at the language and tone of your job descriptions and recruiting messages. Write your position descriptions to attract more diverse candidates. Words can signal to candidates that they aren’t a fit for certain positions. For example, phrases like “world-class” or “best of the best” tend not to attract women. Consider replacing such words with more inclusive language.

Also, think carefully about what competencies are “required” versus ones that are simply nice to have but are not essential to someone being able to succeed in the role. Research shows that women are much less likely to apply to a position if they don’t meet every last requirement.

Examine your sourcing tools

Make sure you are using a variety of sources to locate potential candidates. Gone are the days of posting on Monster.com and flipping through a database of candidates. Don’t focus on hiring through referrals. “Who do you know” recruiting results in more of the same and is far too insular. Women and candidates of color are more likely to search for jobs online while men are more likely to rely on their networks when it comes to finding their next position. Admittedly, in our early years, we were guilty of this approach and we changed our practices several years ago to broaden our reach. I manage our candidate sourcing team and here is what we’re doing to ensure we’re conducting a thorough and fair search.

You may want to invest in AI sourcing tools to eliminate bias in your searching and screening. Look at ways to make connections with diversity groups on LinkedIn or through associations in your area. Leverage relationships with HBCUs and HSIs, or consider posting on their job boards, to build your reputation as an organization that values diversity in hiring.

Focus on the competencies, not the attributes

When we ask many hiring managers for feedback after an interview, we often hear “I liked her.” Research shows we like people who are most similar to us. When interviewers begin their discussion with a candidate, they often resort to “ice breaker” or “get to know you” kinds of questions in order to build rapport. It’s easy to like a candidate who you’ve learned likes going to the beach as much as you do. But Mike’s affinity for the ocean doesn’t tell us anything about his ability to do the job. And once you’ve found that common ground, it’s much harder to keep your personal opinion out of the process. To avoid falling into this trap, ask the same questions of everyone you’re interviewing and keep it competency focused. You want the most skilled candidates to rise to the top, not the ones who are the best at talking about themselves. The key is learning how to assess cultural fit without perpetuating bias.

Consider using more evidence-based ways of evaluating competencies during the interview process. Conducting work sample testing or asking a series of written questions that supplements a traditional resume are ways to standardize your process and weed out potential bias.

Think hard about your personal biases

Carefully consider your tendency to assign value to certain criteria when you’re evaluating candidates. What preconceptions do you have? What do you consider a non-starter? And are those assumptions valid or are they limiting your perspective? There are plenty of legitimate red flags to be raised by a resume that looks “job jumpy.” But consider the possibility that a candidate may have needed to accept a position that wasn’t ideal for a variety of good reasons and then left sooner than they would have liked in order to pursue something more aligned with their career goals. Instead of automatically disqualifying a candidate who has held more jobs than you’d like to see, maybe give them an opportunity to explain why they’ve made their career choices and then decide. Similarly, consider your preference for candidates coming from highly prestigious colleges or big-name companies. Not everyone had the opportunity to attend an Ivy League university and not every Ivy League graduate is by definition a better candidate than the one who went to a state school. Here are our recommendations for how to select resumes without perpetuating bias.

Present a diverse slate of candidates

Research has shown that when the final pool of candidates for a given position contains only one minority candidate, it is almost guaranteed that person will not be hired. The odds of a female candidate being hired are 79 times greater if there are two female candidates in the pool. For minority candidates, those odds increase exponentially – it is 194 times more likely a minority candidate will be hired if there are at least two in the pool. If our slate of candidates isn’t a diverse representation of the market, we huddle as a team to re-examine our sourcing process and challenge assumptions we may have made throughout the search to see how we can open things up to a broader pool of traditionally underrepresented candidates.

Look closely at who is making decisions

Involve women and minorities in the interview and hiring decisions. Including broader, more diverse perspectives is key in creating a more inclusive environment. Diversity in background and experience will provide differing viewpoints and observations that will allow you to evaluate candidates from all angles, resulting in more well-rounded hiring decisions and more inclusive work environments.

Break the cycle

It’s important to recognize that in some fields, the pool of qualified diverse candidates may be small because of systemic practices outside of your organization. In order to hire a person of color for senior-level positions, perhaps it makes sense to look at a level below and promote upward. Highly qualified individuals may have been historically overlooked at the C-level so it could be beneficial to look at VPs and senior directors who are ready to take on new challenges rather than to recruit solely from the pool of current C-level candidates. Remember to evaluate your requirements closely and prioritize them over skills that aren’t absolutely needed while you keep your unconscious bias in check.

Hold your vendors accountable

When we evaluate tools and services, we look closely at how our vendors approach the issues of bias and diversity. We’ve made some tough decisions, dropping vendors whose solutions were too simplistic. We all have an obligation to push our vendors to do better. Our clients should demand it of us and we all are accountable for continuing to learn and improve. If you have a dollar to spend, think of ways you can use it to continue the push for systemic change.

By examining our organizational hiring processes and consciously replacing them with more evidence-based hiring practices, we can create workplaces that are not only more diverse and inclusive but also better situated to succeed in the future.

See also:

Results-Based Hiring Scorecard: Quickly See How Your Hiring Process Stacks Up

Topics: Hiring Process, Evidence Based Interviewing