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Dealing with unconscious bias in diversity hiring

Having a diverse workforce in terms of gender, race and ethnical background is becoming increasingly important for all companies. Focusing on diversity is not only a result of globalization or the effect of embracing the liberal values of tolerance and inclusion, it also makes economic sense. According to McKinsey & Company, gender diverse companies outperform their less diverse competitors by 15%, while ethnically diverse companies perform 35% better. Diversity, however, is not limited to gender or race, but it includes sexual orientation, religious affiliation, disability and even personality type or thinking styles. Diversity in all these areas leads to innovation and excellence.

In order to make sure that companies attract and give a fair chance to very different individuals, companies should design a fair and inclusive selection process.

The biggest challenge – unconscious bias

Attracting the right employees and encouraging them to apply is not enough to guarantee success. Even if the pool of candidates is excellent, the selection process can prove itself challenging. The most important aspect and the most difficult to keep in check is unconscious bias. This can be structural or individual.

Structural bias

In order to make sure that the best candidates are selected and that everyone gets a fair chance, diversity should be celebrated, not ignored. Many companies pride themselves on having an anonymous selection process, where everyone is judged by the content of their application, without taking into account race, ethnicity, gender, disability etc. Such a process, while treating everyone the same, does not give a fair chance to those who are different. For example, someone with a disability will most likely have a very surprising career path. At first glance, without being aware of the circumstances, their CV might not impress us, but taking into account the obstacles they had to overcome will put their achievements in a new light.

Individual bias

Being drawn to people who are similar to us is simply human nature. We tend to like people we identify with and avoid those to which we cannot relate. This is a primal evolutionary response, which cannot be ignored in the selection process. In order to make sure that all candidates get a fair chance, those reviewing the applications should have received diversity and sensitivity training. In addition to this, the selection committee should have a diverse composition, in order to reflect the values and skills the company is looking for.

Bias-free selection process

In order to avoid both structural and individual bias, companies should pay special attention to how they design the selection process and the tools they use. Many Applicant Tracking Systems have the capability to screen CVs for key words. This feature helps reduce the number of applications to one that is manageable and, in theory, only puts forth the most relevant applications. In practice though, it may exclude all the candidates who are different. To deal with this, recruiters can either pay special attention to the key words they choose, by analyzing the CVs of successful diverse employees, or replace the automatic CV screening with pre-recorded video interviews. When it comes to the latter, candidates can answer a few questions about their background, motivation and career path in a video recording of 2- 3 minutes, thus allowing the recruiters to quickly review and compare answers. This approach allows the candidates to present themselves and turns their differences into an advantage instead of a liability. In addition, most video interviewing tools allow recruiters to share interviews with other colleagues. Creating a diverse selection committee could be challenging, so sharing videos recordings with team members provides flexibility in terms of scheduling and time commitment.

Most companies have set goals for diversity standards, but reaching them requires continuous effort. Unconscious bias plays a big role in stunting diversity and it must be addressed at all levels of a company’s culture. It starts with designing fair processes to select diverse candidates and it continues with challenging the internal culture, providing employees with inclusion and sensitivity training, and consistently creating opportunities for diverse employees to accede to top management positions.


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