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5 Steps to Improve Diversity Recruiting

A group of colorful paper people standing in a row.

NEW YORK CITY—Johnny Campbell has a confession to make: When he started out as a corporate recruiter at age 21 doing searches for accountants and comptrollers, he'd quickly delete anybody older than 40 from his database.

"I would say over 40 is too old to do these jobs!" said Campbell, owner and CEO of Social Talent, a Dublin, Ireland-based social coaching platform for recruiters. "You live and learn. You grow out of these things. But I know there are other people out there who have these biases and they justify them."

Bias can thwart diversity at every step of the hiring process, from recruiting, screening and interviewing to assessment and onboarding, Campbell said at this month's HIREconf NYC, a recruiting conference. But there are tactics that can help increase equal opportunity at each stage.

"Diversity hiring isn't about fixing one stage, and it isn't just about the hiring," he said. "When you talk about diversity and inclusion, it leads to the more holistic area of belonging in an organization and it doesn't just end with [recruiters]."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Affirmative Action Programs]

Reconsider Job Requirements

Job specifications may include equal employment opportunity statements, but people who write them often don't think about factors that influence the chances of certain candidates applying.

Campbell said a Social Talent analysis of published job advertisements revealed "a really weird pattern" where the number seven was used frequently, such as stating that someone should have seven years' experience. He recommends nixing such numbers unless they are absolute requirements. 

Why? Campbell said a Hewlett-Packard internal report, which was the focus of a 2014 Harvard Business Review story, found that women generally only apply for positions where they feel they meet 100 percent of the criteria, unlike men, who will apply if they feel they meet just 60 percent.

If you say someone needs five years' experience, be 100 percent sure you can't hire someone with four years' experience because you'll turn some women away. Better yet, Campbell said, leave out such arbitrary requirements.

Nix Bias at the Sourcing Stage

Bias can enter the search and sourcing process whether you're male or female, white or black, Latino or Asian, European or American. Case in point: Campbell said an analysis of data from the estimated 80,000 recruiters worldwide who use his platform found that when recruiters search for candidates on LinkedIn, regardless of role, they're more likely to look at male profiles.

In every profession and at every level of seniority, Campbell said, recruiters end up looking at twice as many male as female profiles.

"We don't go in thinking we are actively looking for more males than females, but it often happens," Campbell said.

He added that one way to find female talent is to filter profiles on a Boolean search, using phrases such as "women in tech," "girl coders" or "STEMWomen," or to filter profiles using terms such as "she" or "her."

But a better way is to use data aggregator technology that gathers data from across the web and filters the most relevant information into a database of candidate profiles. Instead of searching for specific terms like those above, a recruiter could create a search by entering a list of female names. Then, they could add other parameters, such as job titles or skills required. Or, to reach ethnically diverse candidates, add certain surnames.

Train to Spot Bias in Screening

Screening is arguably where most bias comes into play, Campbell said. Unconscious bias training can help. Research has shown that hiring managers, whether male or female, rate male candidates as more competent and hirable than identical female candidates for STEM positions, according to "Science Faculty's Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students," a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study used the exact same resume with randomized male or female names and sent it to hiring managers for a lab manager position. Managers who thought they were looking at "male" resumes rated those candidates more competent, more hirable and even said they would more likely mentor this person. Campbell said the latter finding is particularly troublesome.

"It's all very well to say that they fit or they don't fit, but would you invest your time in helping this person? If they are a man, sure. A woman? Less so," Campbell said. "Not exactly equal opportunity."

When presenting resumes to hiring managers, consider deleting the name to take gender out of the equation, and label resumes by using numbers instead of names. Likewise, removing addresses can ward off discrimination based on socioeconomic background. Such judgments can happen in a split second: "They say 'I'm not going to hold this against them,' but it doesn't matter," Campbell said. "It's on your mind."

Work to Ensure a More Balanced Slate

Whether the priority is more diversity based on race, gender, ethnicity or some other dimension, it pays to have a diverse interview slate. A company looking to hire more women may not want to bring in the top four candidates if they're all men, but swap the top two out for women.

A 2016 study published in the Harvard Business Review based on research at the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business found that if there are four candidates and three are female, there's a 75 percent chance a woman will be hired. If the slate is two men and two women, the odds of a woman being hired are 50/50. But when there are three men and one woman, Campbell said the chances of a woman being hired is statistically zero because they're viewed as a "token."

The study found women were 79 times more likely to get the job when there were at least two females on the short list, while given the same scenario, nonwhite candidates were nearly 194 times more likely to get hired.

"If you put in one token person, they stand out by being the only one," Campbell noted. With more than one, "all of a sudden they're just other candidates, which is what we want them to be."

Watch What You Do and Say

Small micro-affirmations during an interview can have an outsized impact.

Complimenting a female with phrases like "your outfit is amazing" activates "a stereotype threat," and she'll statistically do less well during the interview, Campbell said.

In the end, he said, "it's about understanding people. It's so important to first of all realize we all have these biases. Embrace them and figure out how … to give everybody the best chance to do their jobs and be happy."

Campbell will lead a session at the 2017 SHRM Talent Management Conference & Exposition in Chicago on April 25 on finding and hiring passive candidates.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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