Bias free: fantasy or reality?

By: Lubna Haq


Getting the best person for the job does not have to be a dream. HR and hiring managers have long acknowledged that traditional recruitment processes can be unintentionally discriminatory. They often share their conundrum of trying to achieve a workforce which reflects the diversity of the population at all levels in the company but failing to do so at more senior levels despite their best intentions. I have worked with many corporate teams grappling with how to attract and retain a diverse range of applicants and ensure that every person has an equal chance to do their best in the selection process.

You may ask, so what is the problem? How hard can it be? Why is the success rate so scattered? In 2020 we are still a long way from achieving representative numbers of senior women and people from BME groups in senior leadership roles. Clearly, just taking names or where you were educated from CVs is not the answer! It’s not the case that outstanding people from these groups don’t exist so how do organisations implement recruitment methods which are fair, and which focus on a person’s ability to do the job now and in the future?

Managers have cottoned on to the fact that as human beings, we all have unconscious bias so there is now a great focus on trying to minimise it. But are the approaches being taken enough to get better results? Anonymising names and key data from CVs that can lead to prejudice or ‘training’ hiring manager to understand and avoid unconscious bias is not paying dividends quickly enough for a host of very good reasons. At Claridade we believe there are 2 key aspects to getting the right person in role. Firstly, having absolute clarity about the requirements of the role and how it fits in to the strategic ambitions of the organisation. Secondly, assessing people based on them providing concrete examples of what they actually do in situations versus what they may potentially do.

This helps to eliminate hypothetical posturing and avoids people who are good in interview situations overselling themselves. The process of a structured, strengths-based discussion allows time to probe for the desired behaviours in a variety of settings and scenarios the person has dealt with previously, so they are not excluded because they don’t have current experience of a senior role. Asking more open ended questions allows a candidate to showcase the full extent of their ability in a particular area and provide them with an opportunity to demonstrate a repertoire of behaviours ranging from team work to influencing at levels of great sophistication. It also means that whatever the recruitment outcome, the candidate has a great experience and are left feeling good about themselves.

Research shows that this method is a much better predictor of who will or will not be successful in a given role. Controversially, I have a hunch that if the interview is conducted remotely, for example by phone, this may eliminate some bias but there is not enough research on this. In my opinion, it helps the assessor to focus on the content of what is being said and less distracted by appearance and body language.

Asking more open ended questions allows a candidate to showcase the full extent of their ability in a particular area and provide them with an opportunity to demonstrate a repertoire of behaviours

That may then prompt you to ask, “how helpful and unbiased are psychometric tests or online surveys?”

The honest answer is that they are not 100% unbiased but they certainly help to remove human bias from the selection process and, as a supporting resource, can help to sift candidates. It is also important to use tests that are bias free and the algorithms for success are not based on mainly (white) male respondents! The choice of psychometrics used is therefore critical. Any psychometric test that you use must be representative of the tasks involved in the role (content validity); they should measure relevant traits  (construct validity);  they should predict what they’re meant to predict (criterion validity)and it should be obvious to candidates what the tests are assessing (face validity).

Competency based interviewing is not a panacea, but it creates a more level playing field. Asking candidates to talk about context driven situations related to the role provides more accurate information on how a person is likely to perform in a role more regularly, how they learn, adapt and flex their approach and how emotionally intelligent they are. Sometimes this may mean taking a chance on people but is a great opportunity to get fresh thinking, creativity and innovation into an organisation.

In an increasingly competitive market, the goal of most organisations is to ensure that they get the best people. A body of research is showing that measuring candidates in a way that celebrates difference will result in the most successful hires, delivering the best results.

If you would like to discuss this in more detail, please contact [email protected]

Lubna Haq

Lubna is an experienced business leader. Most recently she worked as a partner in a global company responsible for designing and introducing leadership programmes targeted at middle managers.