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Unconscious discrimination: are recruitment processes still biased?

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Recruiters seem to have a firm grasp on what they want from an applicant: a positive attitude, new ideas and an ability to develop. So why are some groups disregarded when they tick all the boxes?

We like to think we live in a society of equal opportunity. No matter our backgrounds, our creeds or our appearances, chances will come to those that have a positive attitude and are willing to turn up and get the job done.

Despite this, in the past month, there have been reports that 37% of deaf workers felt they had been discriminated against during the recruitment process, only 5% of FTSE 100 boardroom positions are held by minority groups, and graduates looking for roles in investment banking were judged on the quality of their clothes. 

While in most cases opaque discrimination is no longer a problem, these cases suggest an unconscious bias still runs through the workplace, in particular in the recruitment process. Research released earlier this month by the CIPD appears to back this up.

In a report of HR practitioners and line managers from a range of sectors, CIPD asked how they ranked different groups by three criteria: positive attitude to work, bringing new and innovative ideas to the business and their ability to develop. 

Despite scoring highly in at least two of three of these criteria, workers over the age of 55, people with disabilities, and parents returning to work were not heavily recruited. Only 11% of respondents said their company targets disabled people in recruitment, with only 10% pursuing returning parents and 9% recruiting older workers.

Kate Headley, development director of the Clear Company, believes these figures represent a disconnect between what employers want and where they are looking for employees: “While hirers might be afraid to admit it, unconscious bias exists in recruitment, but it’s simply human nature. 

“The information present in this latest CIPD report reveals that there is a real gap between what employers feel makes a persona a good employee and how many that meet this criteria from under-represented groups are actively being sourced.” 

By accepting that an unconscious filtering process can happen, recruiters can improve on the diversity of their workforce.  Headley believes that this is possible by not conflating negative experience of hiring people from these over-looked groups with future applicants.

Headley commented: “What is particularly interesting is that a previous negative experience in diversity and inclusion was exacerbating the problem, with respondents who had been subject to such a situation less likely to target the top diverse groups identified in the report.

“Clearly there’s a bit of a cycle here, and recruitment needs to get out of the rut it’s in and look to reduce unconscious discrimination.”

Of course once recruiters address their unconscious biases, the problem becomes more prevalent in their thought processes. But is this enough? It’s definitely a start, but perhaps the answer is a clear and conscious company policy that promotes inclusion and diversity.


Tom Ritchie

By Tom Ritchie

Tom is an editorial assistant at Changeboard.

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