It’s time to address systemic bias in recruiting

Systemic bias, also called institutional bias and, at times, structural bias, is at its simplest, the tendency of a process to support specific outcomes. The term generally refers to ‘something that is spread throughout, affecting a group or system, such as a body, economy, market or society.’

In the context of Talent Acquisition, however, systemic bias begins to take on a more personal hue. In an industry valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. A profession where we find, engage, select, onboard and manage candidates and employees — systemically — the facts support that outcomes for equally qualified candidates and employees from under-represented groups do not match those for white males even after many decades of legislation and employer programs.

What is holding us back from making meaningful change is likely the lack of critical data or a reliance on traditionally accepted methods of weighting decisions and long-embedded practices (with unintended consequences) where individuals and employers simply lack the patience or fortitude to go up against ‘the way we’ve always done it’.

So how do we address systemic bias in recruiting?

As an industry that increasingly prides itself as a community concerned about its impact on candidates, it shouldn’t have to be this way. If we were to agree as a collective group about the flawed processes and systemic failures that we know are the choke points to hiring fairly then solutions to address them could be leveraged.

From our perspective, society is calling on us to take responsibility to nurture and improve our industry – to act in this moment. It’s time to take a stand together

Our industry, our profession, our passion for Recruiting, Hiring, Talent Acquisition – or whatever one might want to label this thing of ours – is the tip of the HR spear in how humans come together to work collectively.

Hiring can and should be a passage into life-changing opportunity.

Choosing a job is one of life’s critical decision points.

Recruiting is the crossroads where a job in the context of a career and a career in the context of life take on meaning.

[Listen: Moments That Matter with William Wiggins]

As HR, Talent Acquisition and Staffing professionals, Service Suppliers and Technology Entrepreneurs we can also choose to influence those around us to be the best they can be. Together, we can do the most good to uncover systemic bias and racism, set minimal standards and truly influence all employers to change.

Where the talent industry can positively impact change

PAY. We systematically pay women less than men for doing the same job. It is a fact, forget the nuance. Yet, fewer than 30% of employers on the Fortune 500 list have even bothered to calculate pay disparities for women let alone other under-represented groups. Even Harvard Business Review concludes that gender parity is 70 or more years away.

Do we believe we should as an industry know the pay disparity (and how it was calculated assuming it was not legislated?) for gender, ethnicity, etc. in every firm? How might recruiters respond to direct questions by candidates from under-represented groups about pay practices? Which technology firms have the capacity to incorporate in their solutions real-time calculations? Which consulting firms have the knowledge and capability to help an employer build a fair and defensible algorithm, and the means to reduce the gap? How do we educate more candidates to consider pay fairness in their calculation about where they will work?

ACCOUNTABILITY. Many companies that take pride in their efforts to hire a diverse workforce invest heavily in training and fully expect their recruiters to prepare a diverse slate of qualified candidates. Yet, nearly 50% of these same companies will also own up to being so fearful of mistakes that any diversity data collected as part of the application process is not available to those recruiters. Recruiters flying blind are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

What if a recruiter had instant access to the degree to which any job or job family was under-represented? What if technology could predict the shifts in demographics of any candidate pool by adjusting years of experience, skills, education, major, etc. without affecting predictions of success? Do we believe a recruiter should be held accountable for aligning the diversity of a qualified slate of candidates to the degree to which the job itself is impacted by a lack of under-represented employees?

[Read: It’s time for meaningful action on equity & inclusion]

SCREENING AND SELECTION DECISIONS. Decades of research by academics has provided an enormous amount of data on how to determine the qualifications needed to successfully do a given job and to conduct proper interviews, the most common form of selection, to increase the likelihood of hiring the best of the screened candidates.

Just how reliable are the position screening requirements? Would two different recruiters and hiring managers be likely to produce the same list of requirements and the priority for each? Are all hiring managers and recruiters trained on the science of interviewing and tested for their knowledge and skills? Are those involved in hiring aware of and able to discuss and observe unconscious biases in themselves and others? Is feedback from candidates who have been screened and interviewed about their perceptions of the fairness of the hiring processes analyzed?

PROFESSIONAL NETWORKS. Our view of our work and our profession is often a function of the business network we have built. And our network is often filled with people who are very much like us. Candidates outside a hiring manager’s network are at a disadvantage because their behavioral, communication and cultural mores might be so different that managers are more likely to find fault.

Should recruiters help their clients assess and improve their network diversity? In addition to training, should hiring managers be required to demonstrate they have a diverse network as a condition to be able to hire?

These four issues: Pay, Accountability, Selection, & Networks barely scratch the surface of systemic practices that influence where individuals from under-represented groups may be unfairly excluded from opportunities.

Let’s make a difference together

We can make a difference. Some of you are already working on solutions on your own but what we can do collectively far outweighs any individual investment. What will it take for us as an industry to agree on a minimum standard for ‘what good looks like’ for each of these? Coming together as a single force.

CXR believes we can move the industry substantially if even a small subset of practitioners, consultants, service providers, trade associations, professional associations, and analysts are willing to devote time, roll up their sleeves, get beyond their company agenda, and weigh in as a collective force. Together we can forge agreement and underwrite the cost of making our conclusions known and arm our peers and colleagues to step up.

That’s why we’ve started the CXR Foundation. Ready to join us in making a difference? Learn how.

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Reach out today and find out how you can help improve the recruiting industry.