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.