Stop unconscious bias when recruiting

Whether you like to admit it or not, your personal life experiences, upbringing, background and culture all shape your views and can influence important recruitment decisions. 

Unconscious bias is a big problem because it can mean you miss out on some fantastic talent, lead to a less diverse workforce and most dangerously of all put you at risk of unlawful discrimination claims.

What does the law say?

The general principle is that work opportunities should be available to everyone.

Employers cannot discriminate, either directly or indirectly, on the basis of any of the ‘protected characteristics’ in the Equality Act. These protected characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. So if you do not offer an applicant the role based on any of the protected characteristics, you leave yourself vulnerable to Employment Tribunals claims.

Not only does the Equality Act prohibit direct and indirect discrimination, it prohibits discrimination by perception, for example, if you reject an applicant from a British white female because you think she is black due to her African-sounding name.

Employers can require an applicant to possess a particular protected characteristic if it is really necessary for the particular job, but it’s essential that they can justify the reason for the requirement. They must be able to argue that there is a genuine need for this criterion and that it’s proportionate.

In certain cases, you may take positive action to encourage applications to your organisation from people with certain characteristics because they are under-represented or at a disadvantage in the workplace or at certain job levels. For instance, you may offer a guaranteed interview scheme to disabled applicants who meet the job role’s requirements.

So what’s the solution?

There are some key steps your organisation can take to reduce the chances of unconscious bias and unlawful discrimination occurring when making crucial recruitment decisions.

  1. Get the job advert right

You want to get as wide a pool of candidates as possible in order to get a diverse and talented group of applicants applying for the role. This is why it’s important that you do not restrict who will apply through badly drafting the job advert.

In particular:

  • Be careful using gender-specific terms.
  • Only write phrases such as ‘recent graduate’ or ‘mature’ if they are actual requirements for the job role. These types of phrases may violate the Equality Act because they exclude some people on the basis of their age.
  • If the role requires the person to speak a particular language, this should be clearly set out as a skill. Rather than write a ‘Spanish sales assistant’, you should write a ‘Spanish-speaking sales assistant’ otherwise it could give rise to race discrimination.

You should not be too restrictive with where you place the advert. Simply putting the job advert in men’s magazines, for example, may be discriminatory.

  1. Consider name blind recruitment

You could consider ‘name blind recruitment’ to reduce unconscious bias occurring. This means that applicants’ names are removed.

In 2015, David Cameron announced that he would be introducing it to the civil service. Other big employers in both the private and public sector, such as HSBC, Deloitte and the BBC, followed suit. Some employers have decided to omit more information than just name, for example, gender, age and even university to eradicate certain bias.

  1. Have regular training

Make sure that all staff involved in the recruitment and interview process are trained so they understand not only the importance of the Equality Act 2010, but are able to identify their own biases and take steps to minimise them influencing their decisions.

  1. Get multiple people involved

It may not always be possible in smaller organisations, but try and have more than one person sifting through applications and selecting candidates for interviews. Additionally, try to have multiple interviewers as this helps to ensure that the final decision is not just based on one person’s unconscious bias.

  1. Think about interview questions

It’s useful to ask the same set of questions to all candidates to probe into their education, experience, skills set, knowledge, etc. This makes the process as fair as possible.

Do not lose sight of the end goal of an interview, which is to assess an applicant’s suitability for the role. You should focus and explore areas set out in the job description, person specification and application form and avoid any questions that are simply not relevant to the job’s requirements.

Do not ask any questions that imply you discriminate against people based on certain characteristics such as their age, disability, marital status, race, religion or sex. If they provide information without you asking, you should not allow the information to influence your decision.

  1. Apply a fair scoring system

It’s beneficial to have a clear and objective scoring system, where candidates are scored according to the criteria set out in the job and person specifications. You need to decide how marks will be allocated for each requirement. For example, ‘essential’ criteria will receive higher marks than ‘desirable’ ones. Make sure that you score each applicant in the same way.

  1. Take your time when making decisions

An ill-thought-out hire can lead to costly consequences and regrets, so don’t rush into a decision.

If you need any further advice regarding unconscious bias, seek legal advice. Ellis Whittam can help.