Are Your Job Posts Biased?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal April 20, 2021
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​At some organizations, bias in hiring shows up in the process as early as the job posting.

Most of the time, bias is unintentional, unintended and "unconscious," said Carlos Ledo, assistant general counsel and HR consultant at Engage PEO in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"Apparent signs of bias in the workplace—or anywhere for that matter—are easy to identify. However, often in society, it's the unconscious bias that is both difficult to uncover and remedy," he said.

HR and talent acquisition professionals need to seek out bias in their hiring processes—knowing that it may be their own bias they need to eliminate. Here are some important steps they can take and considerations they can keep top of mind to help build a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

Start with a Broad View

Take a look at the people in your organization, Ledo said. "An organization with a homogenous employee base is more than likely biased—even if it is unconsciously biased—in the way it operates," he noted.  

Mike Fitzsimmons is CEO of Crosschq, a firm that provides technology to automate reference checks and reduce bias. He recommended starting with a broad view when considering whether bias might exist in your job-posting process. "Review your entire hiring process from top to bottom, from sourcing to screening to skills and personality assessments to references and background checks, and ensure that there is no bias introduced into any function via internal processes, programs or applications [or] by third-party software or consultants or contractors," he advised. "This is a heavy lift," he acknowledged, but it's a worthwhile exercise.

Ledo agreed. "Management should create opportunities for employees to express themselves freely about their job, work and day-to-day work environment to identify areas where bias is hidden in plain sight," he suggested. Organizations also should provide unconscious or implicit bias training for all employees—especially management and executives, Ledo said.

Beyond that broad brush, it's important to consider how your organization sources, communicates with and promotes jobs to candidates. This does, after all, represent the "top of the funnel" where the largest number of people join the applicant screening process.  

Candidate Sourcing and Communication

Where are you looking for candidates? There are job boards and communities that specifically cater to minority professionals, Fitzsimmons pointed out. You can also partner with universities with diverse student bodies.

Be aware of and transparent about the state of diversity in your organization, he added. "If you feature your leadership team on the About Us page, and there are few or no minorities, what is that saying to prospective employees? If you don't publish stats on diversity in your workplace or highlight the existing initiatives in place to foster an inclusive environment, what is that saying about your company?"

Make sure that the language you're using is inclusive and doesn't turn certain candidates off or make them feel they're not what you're looking for, said Janine Yancey, CEO of Emtrain, an HR, compliance and antiharassment training platform in San Francisco.

"The most important rule to follow is to ensure that any ads or job descriptions on posting boards use only gender-neutral pronouns," she said. That can be as simple as writing, "The ideal candidate should be able to convey their knowledge," in lieu of "his" or "her" knowledge. In addition, she suggested, "stay away from catch phrases to describe a position that could contain subtle clues or to create a sense that a work environment is competitive instead of cooperative."

Even such trendy and seemingly innocuous terms as "rock star," "ninja" or "competitive" can inadvertently keep some candidates from applying for a job—particularly women, said Victoria Archer, a consultant in Mercer's Career business. On the flip side, "adding collaborative and growth-oriented language such as 'highly determined,' 'strives' and 'nurturing' can attract more women applicants."

Other buzzwords may be problematic and serve as turnoffs for various marginalized groups. Consider, for instance, the impact of language like "strong written and verbal English-language skills" on non-native English speakers who might otherwise be well-qualified for the role. Unless it really is necessary for the role, don't include it. Don't use phrases like "young and energetic," or "work hard, play hard," and be careful about language that may not be inclusive to people of differing abilities like "walk" or "lift," unless those are truly requirements of the job.

Realistic Job Requirements

Posting job requirements that are loftier than necessary for a position or not differentiating precisely enough between "required" and "preferred" skills may also be problematic when attempting to ensure inclusivity. Requiring a master's degree when a bachelor's would be sufficient, or a bachelor's when an associate degree would be fine, for example, can have a disparate impact on certain groups.

"Think about what skills employees can learn on the job and only list the competencies and qualifications truly essential for the position," Archer said. "Consider eliminating college degree and GPA requirements if they are not essential to the role."

There are other, more subtle, ways bias can be introduced, said Hari Kolam, co-founder and CEO of Findem, a people intelligence company that helps businesses find and hire the right talent for their workforce. "It may seem benign enough to list that you're looking for a CFO who has previous experience working for a public company," he noted. "However, workforce data would tell you that there's a very small percentage of women CFOs who have worked for public companies." 

This can be a tough task to attack, Kolam acknowledged. But he suggests starting out by "training HR sourcers and recruiters to be conscious of what it is they're looking for and questioning whether that wish list is going to benefit certain people or groups more than others." Essentially, he said "you have to question your own bias."

And not just once, but on an ongoing basis. In fact, one of the most important things HR professionals can do is start and continue conversations about being alert to unconscious bias in all aspects of the talent acquisition process. There are plenty of places it can creep in.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

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