In response to a global shift emphasising the importance of diversity and inclusivity in the workplace, many employers are looking inward to assess their own limiting prejudices in the hiring process, and turning to big data for solutions. 

Over the past few years, researchers have conducted a large number of studies in an attempt to illustrate the ongoing presence of discriminatory tendencies in recruiting and hiring practices across the globe. Indeed, most of the data suggests that in spite of our best efforts, unconscious bias is still alive and well in the modern workplace.

What’s in a name?

Perhaps the most widely cited report is a 2008-2009 experiment conducted by the National Centre for Social Research. Researchers sent out three, nearly identical applications to 1,000+ job postings in major cities across the UK. Each application was attributed to a fictional candidate with an “ethnically-identifiable” name in order to determine whether or not this would have any impact on call-back rates. The results demonstrated a clear disparity in hiring practices: “black-sounding” applicants received a positive response from employers approximately 39% of the time, compared to a 68% positive response rate for the applications with “white-sounding” names.

More than five years later, you’d think the world might have become a bit more adept at dealing with these kinds of issues, but unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be the case. Researchers in Paris conducted a similar study last year, in which six fictional CVs were sent out to real job offers from French companies, as Forbes reports. Two were given traditional “French-sounding” names, two had names of North African origin and two, names that sounded “vaguely foreign.” The results? The “French” applicants received 70% more callbacks than their ethnically diverse, yet otherwise identical counterparts.

HR biases

The initial screening stage is far from being the only area within the hiring cycle that’s vulnerable. Unconscious bias can creep in and rear its ugly head at nearly any point throughout the entire process. According to a recent CareerBuilder survey, about one in five employers unknowingly asked unethical, and potentially illegal questions during the interview stage, referring to race, age, disability, marital status, and plans of starting a family. Aside from the obvious ethical implications, unconscious biases can also prevent employers from getting the intellectual and creative diversity they need to thrive. Many employers report anecdotal evidence of a marked disinclination to hire candidates who seem to have more experience or intellectual curiosity than current employees. This seems totally counterproductive, as a 2015 survey conducted by the Korn Ferry Institute found that 62% of respondents complained that their organisations were lacking in experiential and intellectual depth.

D is for data (and for diversity)

Today, a growing number of HR professionals are looking to automation and big data for help. They have discovered that by using innovative new technologies in an attempt to level the playing field between candidates, it can help to take the human error out of human resources. HR big data firm eQuest went so far as to call it “an unprecedented opportunity…to make the most rigorously evidence-based” choices possible, stressing speed, accuracy and cost-reduction.

Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced an agreement between a number of public and private employers, including HSBC, Virgin Money and KPMG to remove the names of job applicants from their initial applications to avoid potential ethnic biases. Deloitte plans to go a step further, and has committed to university-blind admissions, in hopes of preventing bias against applicants from non-elite backgrounds, and has emphasised the importance of a “talent pool [that] reflects the make-up of today’s society.”

To that end, Deloitte’s UK business (along with nearly twenty other firms) has announced that in addition to making its hiring process “university-blind”, it will start using Rare, a new recruitment software platform that measures an applicant’s performance within his or her school, relative to their peers, in order to gain a better, more contextualised understanding of each individual candidate, as the Washington Post reports. “It’s man-plus-machine,” says Ali Behnam according to Mashable, a managing partner at Riviera Partners. Behnam and others stress the importance of finding the right balance and making the data “tell a story” about potential new hires.

Sociologists and business psychologists are also starting to hone in on the ways that life experiences impact decision-making skills. “We should pay more attention to context,” says Richard Nisbett, of the University of Michigan, as reported in the Guardian. “In particular, attention to context increases the likelihood that we’ll recognise social influences that may be operating.”

The point is, by adopting a more systematic and contextual approach to hiring, companies can dramatically reduce the potential for unconscious biases to enter into the recruitment equation, thereby bolstering cultural and intellectual diversity within their organisation.

When you consider the fact that companies with solid diversity and inclusivity strategies are approximately 45% more likely to improve their market share and 70% more likely to capture a new market, according to a recent Center for Talent Innovation study, it’s clear that this is no longer just a conversation about right vs. wrong, according to Inc. – there’s a measurable, commercial benefit to having a diverse team.

About the author: Kirstie Kelly is a writer at Launchpad, makers of video led HR software. She has many years of experience within recruitment and is passionate about promoting diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Image: Shutterstock

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