Levelling out the playing field

What’s stopping equitable recruiting? If recruitment isn’t a level playing field, then the recruitment industry is at least partly to blame.

Across Europe and the rest of the world, institutional process has a definite and damaging impact on increasing executive diversity in the workforce. While a few voices work to erode that impact, we’ll still be facing discrimination — both conscious and unconscious — far into the foreseeable future.

While deliberate discrimination still happens far more than anyone admits, the battle against this barefaced prejudice is well advanced, although it may never be conclusively won. Unconscious bias, on the other hand, is far more subversive and wide reaching.

Even the most enlightened, diversity- and equality-conscious individuals and organisations are prey to it, and we all need a better understanding of it if we are to diminish its impact.

I have seen it where I least expected, a woman discriminating another woman based on gender. A mature manager discriminating another one based on age.

Unconscious bias often starts with the first thing a recruiter experience of a candidate — their CV. Recruiters, helplessly are conditioned through long practice to review CVs in a certain way and to look for certain characteristics and features in them. Every recruiter gets reprogrammed when starting in another firm and we are effectively given a blueprint for assessing a CV against a job specification.

When I review a CV, I run through a checklist of what I expect to see and deviations from that ‘normal’ are exclusions or extraordinary happy surprises. With most recruiters, non-standard CVs are quickly discarded in the first or second cut and rarely see the light of day.

Unfortunately, a large proportion of diverse candidates have an ‘irregular’ career progression and ‘irregular’ educational backgrounds and I was right there at that pile. This barrier, at the very first link in the chain, is arguably the most pernicious form of unconscious bias — and almost certainly the most widespread.

Even for recruiters who do understand the value of increasing capability in such non-standard career paths, a common challenge is coping with generalist vs specialist experience. Candidates with broad generalist experience across 20 roles, for example, are difficult for a ‘straight-line thinking’ recruiter to cope with. Assessing overall competency across those 20 roles is far harder than assessing someone with a narrow field of focus, with the result that we tend to favour the specialist, at the expense of people who might bring far wider experience and diversity of thought.

Again, a large proportion of diverse candidates bring that generalist background to the table, and again, they stand to lose out.

Those two elements of unconscious bias are compounded in recruitment process outsourcing (RPO) situations, where the large organisations delivering the recruitment (and the third parties they employ) tend to rely on rigid processes because of their economic models and service-level agreements that inadvertently promote the kinds of unconscious bias described above. I have seen poor RPOs in action and they tend to draw talent from a very narrow band, risking the organisation’s employee value proposition with unsophisticated social media campaigns.

The same can be said about some preferred supplier frameworks that appoint ‘the usual suspects’. When the usual suspects recruit on your behalf, you’ll tend to see the usual suspects in terms of candidates as well. It’s potentially a negative cycle in terms of diversity, since those kinds of recruiters and recruitment firms typically lack the desire, client relationships or leverage to promote diverse candidates.

The simple elements of unconscious bias barely scratch the surface of the issue. Add them to the current market pressures, and the result is a narrowing talent funnel, drawing candidates from a narrow, homogenous group of people. Understanding and overcoming unconscious bias is the next big barrier for diversity champions to break down for sustainable progress.



Filed under Business, Human Resources, Recruitment, Society, Sustainability, Technology

4 responses to “Levelling out the playing field

  1. Nowadays, CV has become its own art. Often a good CV is not determined by projects, achievements, and awards anymore, but how you find an appealing way to present it. Many people who put a lot of effort in the CV design, scratching together all their past experiences, are better than CV’s of people who did a lot of good “stuff”, but do not present/highlight it in their CV appropriately.

  2. You are absolutely right. Sometimes you know you have in your hands the CV of someone really smart but trying to find the right information or the hint of it to ask the candidate directly is a task that makes you go boss eyed. The clutter you come across sometimes is scary and also many get the essence of their achievements lost by using the big words that have become nothing more than buzz words.

    I guess for me, writing a good CV nowadays is very much related to a candidate’s ability to present information in the right way, to understand what a recruiter is actually doing.

    As a recruiter of course, my own CV has been carefully designed to the point of having a signature font, and being active in the IT industry it is now an html file that reads across most browsers, has a print view function and can view previewed by most Email services properly but again it is a document that has been worked and reworked for years and that will continue to evolve.

    Every single person finds their own way, I think those “templates” people find online using them as a standard are too restrictive, a CV speaks loud of a person’s personality and it gets lost when you stuff it in a box.

  3. Simon Brunning

    Gender bias is more insidious than we think. Did you see http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/14/1211286109?

  4. You are absolutely right. I think every woman has faced some of the bias that is unfortunately unavoidable. Me included. Even the companies that are trying to do their best can’t, see this one, you will like it http://blogs.hbr.org/ideacast/2010/08/women-are-over-mentored-but-un.html

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