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Unseen bias and discrimination exists - even in HR

Are diversity’s main defenders also the first offenders?

You are more likely to land a job interview if your name is John Martin or Emily Brown rather than Lei Li or Tara Singh – even if you have the identical Canadian education and work experience.

Such are the findings of a recent study analyzing how employers in the Greater Toronto Area responded to 6,000 mock résumés for jobs ranging from administrative assistant to accountant.

Across the board, those with English names such as Greg Johnson and Michael Smith were 40 per cent more likely to receive callbacks than people with the same education and job experience with Indian, Chinese or Pakistani names such as Maya Kumar, Dong Liu and Fatima Sheikh.

Here is a link to the coverage from The Globe & Mail:

The handling of the 6,000 résumés sent to a large cross-section of Toronto-area employers – possibly including your company – uncovered a clear bias... even in what has long been Canada's most "multicultural" community.

All the diversity training and policy statements in the world are rendered completely meaningless when the gates are closed to diversity candidates from the get-go… so we posted the articles on a site frequented by the GTA’s senior HR folk, and asked for their feedback.

Response from the HR community indicates that the report’s authors' guess that a job posting brings in 100 résumés is tame compared to one national retailer’s experience even ten years ago, when they’d often get 500 or 1000 responses to a posting:

“You don't have much time to screen out the top 30 or so and then start looking more carefully. It's inevitable that people will use rules of thumb… you have to try hard to find a way to recognize and 'inoculate' against that instant, automatic prejudice.

“The foreign looking names tend to suggest 'inability to communicate clearly' as at least a possibility and so it's simply easier to interview the top 3 or 4 who don't have that aura about their resume. And the name isn't the only thing suggesting that, though perhaps the most common. It could be a university in India or China, etc. If time is so pressing, such judgments may even be felt by the judge to be thin, but they think 'only this time, I'll just take the easy shortcut.'

“In my experience HR are often the ones saying 'here's a unique candidate, why not interview them’, when it's the line manager who says 'don't waste my time, just show me the three most like what I have now.' I agree it's likely to be HR that takes the rap [for the findings of the study], just as we do for many other corporate shortcomings, but at least we're usually the ones trying to do the training and promote the equity programs. One could argue we're not doing them well enough, but I think that's putting the blame in the wrong spot.”

In this case, numbers are not HR's friend. The sheer volume of CVs we need to wade through force us to make tough decisions about who we'll take a closer look at and who we won't. Good people are doing the best they can to make the system work; it's inevitable that innocent mistakes will be made and unconscious biases will creep in.

We don't think for a minute that a condemnation of HR is justified by this study, but we do believe the prevailing approach to matching talent with opportunity is cumbersome and horribly broken.

We see evidence of it all the time; this study just highlights one symptom. Other evidence abounds, including epidemic levels of disengagement and turnover, low productivity, rapidly increasing levels of stress and conflict at work, strained relationships with customers and so on.

What this article underscores is that the existing selection process is broken. By and large, we're putting people into jobs primarily on the basis of their education, credentials and experience (and, if this study is credible, their ethnicity)... and hoping we get fit right.

It's backwards.

If instead we sifted and sorted the thousands of candidates on the basis of their fit first (and only then on the basis of the other factors), their name and their ethnicity would be incidental. We've seen results improve dramatically in organizations that adopt such a fit first philosophy, across all the metrics ranging from attendance through engagement, turnover, customer satisfaction, productivity and cost of labour.

‘Fit’ doesn’t need to be nebulous. Let’s face it: most candidates are evaluating you on the basis of fit across four dimensions –

It’s actually very easy for organizations to evaluate candidates on the basis of these same four aspects of fit… and in so doing, they actually do themselves and the candidate a huge favour by reducing mistakes that cause dysfunction (absenteeism, turnover, apathy, bruised relationships, disengaged employees and customers…) and cost the organization dearly on the P&L.

Better yet, putting fit first is completely diversity-neutral and virtually eliminates the risk presented in this study.

So why are our colleagues in HR generally so resistant to an approach that has consistently been shown to be good for the business (and its human resources)?

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