Diversity And Your Broken Recruitment Process

The current state of recruitment is mostly unfair and wasteful. And most people are not even aware of it, or they straight deny it. What creates the issues are our unconscious biases that cause large groups of people never enter the process.

Many studies have shown how unconscious bias enters the hiring process. For instance, as little as your name, identifying you as a female can put you at a disadvantage. This showed in a study about selecting a laboratory manager. The applicant got a randomly assigned male or female name. The study participants then reviewed the application material, and both men and women consistently picked the applicants with male names as more competent.

Iris Bohnet in What Works talks about a great example of gender imbalance caused entirely by unconscious bias during recruitment. In the 1970s, only 5% of musicians in the top five orchestras in the United States were women. Today, this number is up to 35%. What has changed? The selection process was tweaked to include blind auditions. The musicians would audition hidden behind a screen. It immediately increased the likelihood of women musicians being hired by 50%. Not only women finally got an equal chance, but the orchestras also benefited. While up to that point, the leadership of the orchestras was comfortable with mostly white male orchestras, now, almost overnight, the talent pool of potential candidates doubled. All this by introducing a small process change.

Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In describes an experiment by professors Francis Flynn and Cameron Anderson. They decided to test how stereotypes impact our view of men and women in the workplace. They took a case study of a real successful entrepreneur Heidi Roizen and created a fake profile of Howard. The exact copy of Heidi only with a male name. The researchers then asked students to evaluate both profiles and pick a more appealing colleague they would want to work with. The results support other studies that showed that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked more by men and women. When a woman is successful, she is liked less by both men and women. Since men are seen as decisive and driven, while women as sensitive and communal if a woman violates that stereotype and is decisive and driven, she is less likable. Students saw the two identical profiles, with the only difference being gender. They saw both candidates as equally competent but liked Howard and disliked Heidi.

Hiring bias is also seen when it comes to age or any other trait that makes one different from others or from the perception of how the ideal candidate for the role looks like. Social scientists Sonia Kang, Katherine DeCelles, Andras Tilcsik, and Sora Jun interviewed 59 students to test how black and Asian university students approached job hunting. The students were pretty open about the fact that they believed they would be discriminated against based on their race and therefore planned to tweak their resumes. They would Anglicize their names, omit ethnic affiliations and commitments, even add hobbies perceived to be typical for white people. They did their best to make resumes as relatable to employers as possible. 31% of black students and 40% of Asian students whitened their resumes, and two-thirds of the students in the study knew someone else who did it. To see whether this approach worked, researchers ran an experiment to determine if there was a pattern when applying for a job. There was. Whitened resumes led to more call-backs from employers than unwhitened ones.

“Most of interviewers will spend the first minute of the interview making an opinion about the candidate. Then they spend the rest of the interview subconsciously looking for information to justify it.”

Even good interviewers are prone to bias. Many of us will spend the first minute of the interview making an opinion about the candidate based on the first impression. Then we spend the rest of the interview subconsciously trying to find information that would justify that opinion. If we don’t like the candidate at the first glimpse, we will keep searching hard for what’s wrong with them. If we like the candidate, we will give them some slack and search for reasons to hire them.

Not considering diversity is causing an unnecessary headache for hiring managers. Many companies automatically limit the pool of candidates they get. For instance, your recruiters may work only through the LinkedIn platform. Well, many good quality candidates are not on that platform. Or you can have a requirement that the candidates must come from Ivy League schools. Well, these are not particularly diverse as socioeconomic background plays a role in getting admission there. By not being open to candidates from wider variety of schools companies are automatically limiting the number of potential candidates.

Referrals and diversity

The standard answer to recruitment problems is to encourage referrals. Referrals are the easiest way to get hired. Based on research done in the USA, 55% to 67% of male workers heard about their first job from friends or relatives. Globally, across various demographics, between 25% and 40% of respondents confirmed they heard about their current position from someone they knew. Referred workers are more likely to be hired than random candidates from the street, even if they have the same qualifications. And not only that, being referred gives you an early wage advantage as well as longer tenure at the company.

These findings also showed up in another study. Referred applicants have a similar skill to non-referred applicants yet are more likely to be hired. They are less likely to quit and are more productive, but only on rare high-impact performance metrics. On most standard non-rare performance metrics, referred and non-referred workers perform similarly. Workers who make referrals have higher productivity than others are less likely to quit after making a referral and refer those like themselves on particular productivity metrics.

But even employee referral programs limit diversity. Most people have relatively homogenous circles of friends and acquittances. Not much diversity is going to come from there. This was illustrated in the case of Palantir. Allegedly, while 73% of qualified candidates for the internship were Asians, only 19% of those who got the job were from this group (4 out of 21). The alleged bias wasn’t attributed to racism but to the simple fact that hiring managers preferred to hire people referred by the employees. And the employees didn’t know that many Asian people. Of course, it is not as simple, as even the definition of what constitutes a qualified candidate in this particular case can be questioned. However, it points to the potential problem with referral programs when you are trying to build diversity into the organization.

“Referrals are the easiest and cheapest way to build a team. The fact that they lead to less diversity is the price most companies are more than willing to pay.”

To get more diversity into your organization, consider these steps

Analyze the situation

  • Start with awareness – you need to be aware of the problem. Very few managers see the problem. Even if they understand systemic racism, gender inequality, and biases, they rarely consider that it can also apply to their organization. Inequality is not about blatant hatred. It can be subtle and occur without conscious awareness or intent.
  • Find the root cause – you need to understand what is the root cause of the problem. The lack of diversity can come from many sources, starting with cognitive biases, psychological insecurity, perceived threat to current privilege, worldviews, or structures and systems in place. In fact, most of the problems will most likely come from cognitive biases and structures and systems that are in place that favor the majority.
  • Consider the big picture – you need to understand how the problem afflicts those in the organization and potential candidates. More importantly, you need to answer the key question of whether you care enough to do something about it. If your employees don’t believe that bias and racism exist in the organization, they won’t get on board to fix it. They may even see any diversity efforts as the problem itself. This requires data and education. You need to share enough data to clearly show the problem and educate people on why it exists.
  • Consider each part of the hiring process – think about how exactly and what type of bias can come to play. Especially the moment you make decisions that are not based squarely on data, like cultural fit, you are likely to see a lot of bias. When debriefing after the interview, it might be helpful to start with acknowledging where the bias could enter the equation and then call each other out when your thinking might be biased.

Build self-awareness and educate yourself

  • Accept that you are biased – even if you may feel you are not. Biases are dangerous precisely because we are unaware of them. The affinity bias, or bias towards others like us, is rooted in evolution and difficult to admit and beat. It is a bias that leads to hiring copies of yourself. Only by accepting you are biased you can do something about it.
  • Educate yourself about various biases – you need to understand them better as it would help you devise means of mitigating their impact on your decision making.
  • Educate yourself about the experiences of minorities – you need to get a better understanding of how minorities and underrepresented communities in the workplace feel. By exposing yourself to different points of view, you are more likely to create more inclusive thinking. It will also give you the tools and language to call out others when they exhibit bias.

Drive change

  • Build a sense of urgency – you need to be willing to create an emergency or crisis to disrupt the status quo. As with any change, you need to activate people, so they understand a change is necessary.
  • Accept pain – you need to be willing to make a sacrifice and endure some pain the increased effort will bring. You also need to be ready to show that even though there will be pain, it won’t be as big as people may assume. For example, one of the frequently quoted issues with diversity in hiring is that you must hand over favors to minorities and sacrifice fairness and a meritocratic approach. That is a misunderstanding of how fairness works. Fairness doesn’t mean equality. It means equity. You don’t need to treat people the same. You may need to treat them differently to provide the same opportunities.
  • Create a plan – come up with a specific plan on how to address the lack of diversity. You need to be able to address various aspects of the diversity problem in parallel. You need a plan for formal processes and policies, as well as informal cultural norms and personal attitudes. Trying to tackle only one side of the problem is not likely to yield any long-term benefits.
  • Sell it to the organization – come up with stories that sell the problem and the solution to the organization to get people on board. This includes education about biases and systemic discrimination and clearly stated benefits of a more diverse and inclusive team.
  • Take the first step – a plan without implementation is meaningless. You need to get things moving and share with the organization the first small wins to keep the energy high. Monitor the progress and adjust as needed.
  • Have diversity goals – track how you are doing. Unconscious biases are insidious because you are not aware you have them. By having enough hard data, statistics of how many minority candidates entered the process, at what stages dropped out, and how it compares to majority candidates can help you realize which part of your process is biased.

Putting it all together

Focusing on diversity can significantly improve your success in the job market by expanding the talent pool available to you. You no longer need to fight for the limited number of the same people that everyone else is fighting for, but you can be more open-minded and inclusive. You will find many great candidates out there who will do a fantastic job once they get a chance. By dealing with your unconscious biases and prejudices, you can give them that fair chance.


What is your take on the topic? Do you believe increasing diversity in companies is important? What is the biggest obstacle to having more diverse teams? What approach to diversity worked for you?

Photo: MichaelGaida / Pixabay.com

Follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.