Overcoming unconscious biases during recruitment can help organisations truly find the right person for the job, become more diverse, and perform better.
Australia is becoming increasingly diverse. Recent census figures show that one in three Australians were born overseas, and half of all Australians have at least one parent born overseas
This demographic diversity requires active management to guarantee a socially cohesive and economically prosperous multicultural nation. However, Australia is lagging behind in engaging with evidence-based strategies to improve hiring practices so they are fair, unbiased, and guided by merit.
It isn’t difficult to do.
In a two-year pilot research programme – Recruit Smarter – implemented for the Victorian State government in real workplaces, we found that simple strategies like de-identifying CVs and changing the language in job advertisements can have a huge practical effect in overcoming unconscious bias.
For example, at the Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance we found that before de-identifying CVs men were 33 per cent more likely to be hired than women. After de-identification, this flipped and women were eight per cent more likely to be hired than men.
Evidence suggests that inequality in the workplace is rife. Employees from ethnically and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people with disabilitiesand people from minority religious faiths report bias and discrimination when searching for employment.
Experimental research suggests that employees from non-Caucasian backgrounds must submit up to 68 per cent more job applications to get the same number of offers for job interviews as a person of Anglo-Saxon background.
Minority applicants are often disadvantaged by current hiring processes. However, most of the disparity is not the result of minority applicants being less educated, skilled, or qualified for roles. Instead, it’s highly likely that unconscious bias plays a role in decision making around selection and recruitment. Letting bias impact the recruitment process can seriously affect the principle of merit: hiring the best person for the job.
This represents an important issue for Australians to tackle. Lack of inclusion has serious implications for improving and maintaining equality among all citizens. But this issue is not just important for employees. Underemployment of minority applicants also hurts organisations.
Research has shown that diverse, inclusive businesses are more profitable, creative, and productive. Furthermore, gender and ethnic diversity in organisations can result in outperforming competitors by between 15-35 per cent.
In other words, current hiring practices may inhibit company performance.
The Recruit Smarter pilot program was designed to improve workplace recruitment. We trialled a number of ways to manage unconscious bias and mitigate its impact on hiring decisions. Each intervention was designed and tailored to the needs and resources available at each participating organisation.
In the Recruit Smarter research program, we trialled interventions in organisations across the recruitment process. The language used in job advertisements was systematically amended with the intention of diversifying the pool of job applicants.
We also de-identified curriculum vitaes (CVs) to remove potentially biasing information (like names and residential post codes), and trained hiring staff on how to spot and avoid the effects of unconscious bias in workplace decision making.
Changing job advertisements
Across the board, results of the pilot program were very positive.
We trialled a change in the language of job advertisements at the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) to increase the number of individuals with disabilities applying for roles; that is, the job advertisement was manipulated to target individuals with disabilities in order to encourage them to apply for the role.
This was done through phrasing the advertisement to specifically note TAC’s support for the career aspirations of people with disabilities, providing applicants with clear instructions on how to request reasonable adjustments to the recruitment procedure to better cater for their needs, and including a general diversity statement.
TAC’s mission is to support people who are injured in road accidents; improving employment opportunities for people with disabilities is therefore a core aspect of the organisation. By specifically including diversity-friendly language and information in the job advertisement, we saw the number of applicants with disabilities more than double during the trial period.
We also found strong results for de-identifying candidate information on CVs.
Across five organisations, we removed different types of demographic information, and tested whether this process changed the success rate for minority applicants.
As noted above, de-identification made women candidates significantly more competitive in roles where they are the underrepresented gender. We also saw increases in the competitiveness of candidates born overseas or living in lower socio-economic areas.
In a randomised control trial with VicRoads, we found that removing country of birth from CVs resulted in overseas born applicants having an eight per cent higher chance of being shortlisted after de-identification.
Similarly, in the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet we found that candidates from lower socio-economic areas had their chances of being offered a job increased by 9.4 per cent when their CV was de-identified.
These results show that taking away information that is not related to job skills – information that may lead to biased assessments of candidates – can change the way that applicants are assessed in the hiring process.
Where to from here?
The take-home message is clear: bias can hinder effective and inclusive recruitment and selection. Fortunately there are many ways to improve our hiring processes to reduce or eliminate the negative effects.
- make an effort to identify where diversity begins to go amiss in their recruitment process;
- recognise that changing one part of the process may not necessarily change the final outcome of recruitment;
- implement changes in a systematic and deliberate fashion to guarantee their impact can be evaluated and modified
- focus on continuous monitoring and improvement to diversity and inclusion initiatives, based on feedback and evaluations – not only in hiring practices, but also as diverse candidates go through the onboarding process and settle into teams.
Unconscious bias unfairly excludes worthy job candidates from job opportunities.
Furthermore, it is depriving businesses and organisations of not only the best people for the job, but also the benefits of workplace diversity. But it can be overcome – we just have to Recruit Smarter.
Ms Michelle Stratemeyer, Dr Victor Sojo Monzon and Dr Melissa Wheeler, University of Melbourne, and Professor Robert Wood, University of Technology, Sydney