When Selection Ends and Discrimination Begins

We all make judgments. It’s part of being human — the need to simplify, categorize and slot things neatly into buckets. Our brains are wired to create patterns and make associations to keep us safe and to aid socialization.

But when those natural inclinations filter into recruitment processes, organizations open themselves up to risk if a candidate files a discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. Even if a company is ultimately cleared, time and money will be lost, and there may be significant damage to an organization’s reputation and recruitment efforts.

Standardizing interview processes and training recruitment staff to avoid unconscious bias can not only keep companies out of the EEOC’s sights, but also it can help a company attract and retain a diverse workforce.

Process Matters

Hiring transparency and fair play often start before recruiting begins — with the job description. What are the essential functions for the position? What skills are critical? “Doing those job descriptions upfront ensures that when we go out and hire, we know exactly what we’re looking for,” said Angela Jones, vice president of culture and inclusion at ConAgra Foods.

Once recruitment and interview processes have been standardized, ensure recruiting staff are trained on a company’s nondiscrimination policies and EEOC regulations, and what could be audited if a charge is filed.

In addition to training for its recruiting staff, ConAgra has a diversity and inclusion boot camp to help recruiters learn to identify unconscious bias. Jones said it’s often not overt discrimination companies have to worry about; it’s the unintended biases that cause the most problems. Having standard processes that all recruiters follow can help, as does developing strong partnerships between recruiters and hiring managers. When these two roles collaborate, Jones said they can constructively challenge decisions that may lean toward bias.

Behavior-based interviewing, where candidates are assessed against specific, listed skills and competencies, also can help hiring managers make more objective assessments instead of making subjective decisions based on, “I really like this person,” or, “They seem like a good fit.”

The Perception of Equality

To build a diverse workforce, it’s critical to have the right recruiting processes in place, but companies also need a diverse slate of candidates for every position. For this, they must cast a wide net. For instance, balance internal recruiting resources such as employee resource groups and employee referrals with external ones. Partner with search firms that specialize in diverse hires to supplement the candidate pool.

James Wright, an independent diversity and inclusion strategist, said it’s not uncommon for recruiters to overlook viable, diverse candidates, such as people with disabilities. He said with this group, bias is more prevalent because, “We’ve already made an assumption that person can’t do the job. If you look at the numbers, people with disabilities are the largest unemployed demographics out there. … Yet we struggle to find and give them placement.”

Wright said he has one writer friend who is constantly overlooked because he can’t walk well without crutches. “But he can write, and he’s extremely smart and extremely funny, but is never given an opportunity to even interview. The perception is automatically, ‘We’re looking for someone who fits into our view of the right candidate,’ which is someone walking, someone not in a wheelchair, someone who doesn’t have a speech impediment … things that have nothing to do with the job.”

Education is another criteria where recruiters can misstep. Wright called it the Ivy League syndrome, the idea that the best talent only comes from Harvard, for instance. But Janet Crenshaw Smith, president of Ivy Planning Group, a consulting and training firm focused on diversity, inclusion and leadership, said many of the difficulties recruiters express are often misconceptions. For instance, the idea that the educational attainment needed is not reflected in the diverse population. But are recruiters looking at historically black colleges and universities? What about state schools? Or, as Wright said, are their efforts siloed to the Ivy League?

Recruiters Should Be Diverse Too

Recruiters should be on guard, lest their own perceptions color — pun intended — the applicant pool. Stereotypes are common, but someone likely won’t know what an LGBT candidate looks like. Not all Asians are good at math and science, all women are not great at administrative duties, and not all Latinos speak Spanish. Those kinds of assumptions could easily form the basis of a bad hire or missed opportunity.

Wright also said many recruiters spend too much time recruiting in one place. He pointed to Pew Internet Project research that shows 74 percent of female Internet users are on social media, as are 75 percent of blacks and non-Hispanics. “If you’re looking for diverse talent, if recruiting efforts don’t include a huge percent of social media, you don’t understand how to find them.”

Rodes Cole, partner and vice president with retained search firm Parker Executive Search in Atlanta, said broad outreach is critical “because the more you put into it, the greater yield you’re going to have in finding the best-qualified candidates. In some cases diverse and in some cases not, but giving everybody within the candidate pool a fair and transparent shot at getting the role.”

Recruiters may even say a company’s location or geography inhibits its ability to attract diverse candidates, but an overreliance on employee referrals could play into this perception. Companies hire frequently based on referrals from their existing employee populations, but those employees may not have diverse networks or feel comfortable referring from their diverse networks “because they know something about the culture,” Smith said. “A lot of organizations want to focus on inclusion, but we need to remember who are we including? If we don’t have a diverse employee base at all levels, it’s difficult to have inclusion.”

Recruiters and hiring managers may choose the path of least resistance and go with who they know. But today, with the Internet and social networking, it’s difficult to credibly claim one cannot find diverse talent. Instead, recruiters must build relationships and social networking skills. Be comfortable being uncomfortable, with being “the only one” in a professional networking group to learn how to communicate with different kinds of people.

“The whole notion of “fit” is something we have to call out. Maybe they don’t fit now because you’re not diverse now,” Smith said. “When I find people who say there’s a talent deficit, I always stop and say are you sure? Or is there a deficit of the kind of talent you’re accustomed to and that you’re comfortable with?”

Recruiters also need to learn how to sell a candidate. They should present each candidate in a way that ensures a positive interviewing experience. Smith said to provide relevant information to educate the interviewer, such as context on leadership experiences. Or, if a candidate is in INROADS — a program to develop and place talented underserved youth in business — be sure the recruiter knows INROADS is not an easy program to get into.

“There are a lot of land mines in the diversity recruiting space that we cannot ignore,” Smith said. “The majority of kindergartners in the U.S. are children of color. If we can’t learn to see difference in different packages, we’re going to be in trouble.”