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An Expert’s Guide to Removing Bias in Hiring

Starcircle Director of HR Brita O’Connor discusses bias in hiring and how to take steps to remove it from your process.

A key hiring requirement for us at Starcircle, and many of our clients, is diversity hiring, and we believe you can’t honestly discuss diversity hiring without acknowledging the role bias can play. This was one of the key takeaways from a recent Inner Circle – monthly events held by Starcircle to discuss important matters in talent acquisition and management with leading figures from the industry worldwide – where our panel discussed screening, assessment and selection practices and how they align with hiring requirements.

Simply put, to ensure diversity we have to reduce bias in the process. While there are many advantages to having robust screening and assessment practices, reducing bias is where things begin.

To be clear, having unconscious biases doesn’t make us bad people, it doesn’t make us sexist or racist, but it does make us susceptible to stereotypes and societal influences. But even those of us who believe we are very open and enlightened have biases that are ingrained at an unconscious level, making tackling bias so difficult.

As an example, I’ll highlight the Stanford University article, Why does John get the Stem job rather than Jennifer? which found that psychology professors who were reviewing CVs rated identical CVs more highly when they had a man’s name at the top of the CV.

Another example involved the hiring of a police chief. The panel reviewing candidates were asked whether education or experience was more important for the job, education, or experience. The answers were revealing: When a male candidate had more education they said education was more important, but when a female candidate had more education they preferred experience.

This kind of bias against women is the reason female authors like JK Rowling and George Elliott chose to use names that hide their gender.

So, in order to correct for the common tendency to – knowingly or unknowingly – take adverse action against marginalised groups, we have to give very careful thought to our hiring practices.

You might assume that training should be the priority, but training alone won’t necessarily change behaviour. In the same way that being aware of the damage certain foods can do to our health alone won’t help us lose weight, we must also commit to taking action.

While this article generally refers to gender biases, the truth is that there’s a lot of work to be done to remove bias against all groups. The data in regards to the US jobs market for example, is stark:

  • Although people of colour make up nearly half of the general population, the majority i.e. 77% of the United States workforce is white.

  • Americans without disabilities are employed at 2.5 times the rate of Americans with disabilities.

  • Women make up 55% of the workforce, but only 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs (in fact January 2023 was the first time in the Fortune 500 listing history that the 10% threshold was broken – a long awaited milestone) — with even fewer of those being women of colour.

  • And 46% of LGBTQ+ workers feel that they have to hide parts of their identity or risk discrimination

The data clearly illustrates that bias exists in the workforce. Those of us in Talent Acquisition and HR roles are at the epicentre of the battle to tackle unconscious bias and have a responsibility to use our influence in our organisations to ensure the practices we put in place reduce bias and ensure a diverse workforce.

Aside from being the right thing to do, cultivating diverse teams has added benefits for the organisation. Diverse workplaces are happier, more productive, more competitive, and more welcoming environments.

Groups that are diverse in gender, race, and age make better decisions, and earn more revenue. So if we are not motivated morally, then there are clear business benefits to reap.

Five Steps to Challenge Bias in Selection and Assessment

  1. We can insist on diverse short lists. To continue using gender as an example, an interview shortlist featuring one woman v three men, means there is statistically zero chance of that woman being hired, as the ratio is sending the implicit message that a man is more suitable for the job. 
  1. We can make sure we have a diverse and balanced interview panel.
    Diverse panels result in diverse perspectives and opinions. 
  1. We can ask candidates to perform tasks or assessments relevant to the job. 
    The key here is that the assessments are relevant because we have all seen some of the obscure tasks that companies have asked candidates to perform that clearly bear no correlation to the role. Where a robust assessment is completed we can use their performance on the task as a good measure of their suitability.
  1. Set a selection criteria in advance of reviewing applications and use structured job interviews which ask exactly the same interview questions in the same order of all candidates and have a strict marking scheme against the criteria. 
  1. Invite blind CVs and cover letters so hiring managers can’t tell anything about the candidate other than their experience and potential suitability for the role. Diversity hiring is something that many of our Starcircle customers insist upon and blind sourcing is something we support them with.

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