Innocent ignorance? Why a process audit could uncover hidden biases
By Jo Faragher on 26 July 2021
Your organisation may be confident that its recruitment and talent processes are completely equitable. Perhaps you’ve moved to blind applications or have trained managers in unconscious bias. But looking more closely at the numbers, progress is slow in terms of diverse representation, and you’re wondering why the measures you’ve taken are having no impact.
What we don’t always realise is that there is “innocent ignorance” in many of our everyday HR and recruitment processes, according to Tom Lakin, senior innovation manager at recruitment specialist Resource Solutions. This could be anything from assuming someone has an iPhone when setting up a video interview to the number of stages you add to the hiring process. Working out where these are and making small changes can often be the catalyst to measurable change. “The interventions where we tend to see the most impact are where people don’t intend to have an impact,” he says. Even recruiters are not immune, a recent survey by the Association of Professional Staffing Companies and the Recruitment and Employment Confederation found that two in five recruitment companies do not record the demographic make-up of their own workforce.
Last year, Resource Solutions worked with HSBC, which had made a public commitment to at least double the number of Black employees in senior roles by 2025. The team spent 136 hours looking at 157 data points across the bank’s recruitment processes, uncovering 63 ways it could minimise bias. The bank prioritised easy wins and changes with the most impact, and is now working through Resource Solutions’ recommendations. “There are dozens of processes in recruitment that double the opportunity to introduce bias, and an audit can go far deeper. All of these elements add up to more than the sum of their parts,” adds Lakin. “Once you’ve held up a mirror to them this can inform your policies.” Examples might include when you offer interview slots (does the candidate have parenting responsibilities?) or the way you use technology; many organisations assume that technology will make the hiring process easier and less biased but it can inadvertently create issues elsewhere.
Guidance from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development on developing an anti-racism strategy, for example, advises organisations to “critically appraise” their people management approach from end to end. While many unintentional inequities can creep into the recruitment processes, there are many more contact points with employees where this can happen. The CIPD recommends looking at appraisals, promotion, pay, retention and even exit processes to ensure they “actively value and encourage respectful and positive attitudes to differences”. In progression, it recommends actions such as ensuring the criteria for performance evaluations or projects is transparent and consistently applied and introducing reverse mentoring schemes where diverse groups mentor senior leaders and managers. On pay, it suggests ethnicity pay gap reporting as a valuable first step.
Hephzi Pemberton, founder of consultancy The Equality Group and author of The Diversity Playbook, agrees that organisations need to look beyond the obvious when it comes to auditing their processes. “Of course there’s an important discussion around things such as blind CVs but we also need to be thinking about what’s further down the line. Do you have a leaky pipeline where you’re not retaining women, for example? Biases play a part in that,” she explains. Men’s future potential is often overestimated in comparison with women’s, she adds, so it’s crucial to ensure everyone is “equally and fairly assessed on both historic performance and future potential”. She also points to research where women and people from ethnic minorities are still paid less, despite scoring the same on recruitment or promotion assessments as white male colleagues.
Breaking things down
HS2, the organisation building the high-speed rail connection between London, the Midlands and beyond, has taken a multi-faceted approach to ensuring processes are fair. “We have a job description screening process which reviews them for biased language and unnecessary or subjective criteria. For example, we don’t allow the use of desirable criteria in our job descriptions,” explains Mark Lomas, head of equality, diversity and inclusion. “We’ve introduced different recruitment approaches for different types of roles, ensuring the best selection process is being utilised. This includes the use of blind auditioning for high volume, technical and future talent recruitment and utilising our leadership framework assessments for senior roles.” Each approach has been rigorously reviewed for EDI impact – when using blind auditions (replacing CVs and applications with a skills-based assessment), shortlisting success for Black and ethnic minority candidates increases by more than 25%.
Hiring managers’ capabilities are also crucial, he adds. “All of our resourcing team have successfully completed an accredited Inclusive Recruitment programme via [consultancy] The Clear Company. We ensure we have one accredited recruiter on each panel. We’ve made inclusive recruitment training available to our recruiting managers to limit the impact of bias. We have also implemented a Diverse Panels programme. We worked with our staff networks to train 40+ volunteers to assist as part of interview panels.” In addition, the organisation uses the data generated at each stage of the recruitment process to show how these steps are impacting the workforce, while there is prominent communication around diverse role models to overcome traditional perceptions of the construction industry. Together, these approaches helped to increase the percentage of Black and ethnic minority staff from 19% to 21% in the last financial year. HS2 also works closely with its supply chain, analysing data from partner companies on each stage of the recruitment process, and supporting them to implement change where necessary. Tier-1 contractors are required to achieve EDI accreditation. Lomas calls this a “team of teams” approach.
Joining it up
Ultimately, identifying any problematic areas in processes is only the start, however. Organisations must ensure processes and support are joined up, adds Pemberton. “There is long-term value in having good diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace but this is often detailed, systemic work. You will also see short-term results for example in your employer branding, but the long-term value comes from joining this all up and building a sustainable culture.
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.
- Download our free practical reports
- Watch free on demand video content
- Become a free member and join 4000+ other organisations
- View our forthcoming diversity and inclusion events