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Opportunities to Fight Bias Span the Entire Talent Acquisition Process

digital illustration of magnifying glass highlighting the top candidate out of several resumes

What does it take to execute a truly impactful strategy for acquiring diverse talent? Consider a great recruiter’s constant to-do list:

  • Understand your talent markets.
  • Understand your candidates’ needs.
  • Question the need for every job requirement.
  • Search creatively.
  • Always seek new talent sources.
  • Take on a marketing mindset.
  • Use technology.
  • Embrace innovation.
  • Be critical of your job descriptions and always be willing to revise.
  • Understand how candidates see your company and always be willing to improve.
  • Do not let flawed interview processes shut out great talent.
  • Do not let flawed selection decisions stand in the way of great hires.
  • Trust intuition but embrace the process.
  • Be willing to measure, manage, and improve everything.

These practices and principles separate the leaders in the war for talent from the rest of the pack. They are also part of the mindset that improves a company’s ability to attract and hire diverse talent. Great diversity recruiting is, very simply, great recruiting. Yet, organizations often struggle to improve their effectiveness in securing diverse talent.

The issue goes back to the root of nearly all diversity challenges: bias gets in the way.

Without knowing it, even the best recruiting organizations can fall victim to bias. Bias is reflected in a recruiter’s comfort with using talent sources that worked in the past even though there may be many other sources more suited to diverse talent. Bias is reflected in job descriptions with vague clichés, seeking “aggressive go-getters” and making those who do not describe themselves as such think twice about applying. Bias is built into unnecessary job requirements that shut out qualified candidates. Bias is felt when an interviewer asks questions that are not relevant to the job and in hiring decisions overly dependent on subjective ideas of culture fit or other intangibles. Bias is everywhere, and it stands between the talent organization and a supply of qualified diverse candidates a company needs to succeed.

The solution: get intentional about targeting talent and fighting bias. From job definition to sourcing, recruiting, candidate evaluation, and selection, opportunities to fight bias span the entire talent acquisition process.

Step 1: Job Requirements and Descriptions

Job requirements and descriptions are fertile ground for rooting out unconscious bias. Many job roles have long lists of requirements, and many of those requirements are overstated in their level of need. A hiring manager may view every requirement as part of a big picture, adding up to the classic notion of “the ideal candidate.” The real effect of inaccurate, overstated requirements, however, is chilling. Each demand beyond the core job requirements is an opportunity to drive a potential applicant away.

Overstated requirements can have a real impact on whether diverse applicants apply for the role. For example, a 2010 study by Hewlett Packard found that, in many cases, women only apply for jobs where they meet 100 percent of the requirements for a given role while men will typically apply even if they only meet 60 percent of the requirements. Hiring managers can improve results by questioning each requirement.

Language is also important. Studies have found that words used in descriptions and postings are naturally inclined toward either an aggressive or nurturing bias. Is the applicant pool skewed toward male applicants rather than females? Perhaps the language of the requirements is playing a part. Compare two examples of the same requirement as reflected in an article by ERE Media based on that study:

“Strong communication and influencing skills. Ability to perform individually in a competitive environment. Superior ability to satisfy customers and manage the company’s association with them.”

“Proficient oral and written communications skills. Collaborates well in a team environment. Sensitive to clients’ needs, can develop warm client relationships.”

Developing bias-free job descriptions requires time and commitment on the part of hiring managers. Training for recruiters and hiring managers can help. Likewise, companies can also use technology solutions such as those based on artificial intelligence (AI), which are making great strides in helping to identify and eliminate bias in written language. One example is Textio, an online application that analyzes job descriptions and highlights areas of bias and quality issues much like a spell checker. Another application known as Talent Sonar provides AI-driven intelligence to optimize unbiased recruiting in creating job requirements and descriptions, as well as résumé review, and support for the interview and hiring process.

Step 2: Sourcing and Recruiting

From employer brand alignment to recruitment marketing, sourcing, and community outreach, companies have many opportunities to improve their ability to source and recruit diverse talent.

Aligning the Employer Brand

The employer brand is the perception of a company in the eyes of current and past employees, as well as potential, future talent. More organizations are focusing on strategy and messaging to improve their employer brand and its ability to attract diverse talent. But if reality does not match a brand message, the truth will eventually come out. Candidates can read reviews and learn the truth before they join a company, and, as employees, they will experience the reality of what it is like to be a diverse worker in the organization early in their tenure.

By establishing a specific improvement plan, demonstrating genuine progress, and conveying sincere commitment, even a company in the early stages of a D&I strategy can support a positive brand. A statement about D&I on a website or in the annual report is helpful, but the stronger message is one that shows inclusiveness through the perspectives and the stories of people in the organization. This perspective can also be conveyed through the views of diverse employees themselves in social media.

Recruitment Marketing

Today, a recruiter can still blindly post a vacancy on job boards and hope that qualified applicants will come to them, but this style of “post-and-pray” recruiting is unreliable at best. The best talent may not be actively looking for work. That talent may be presented with numerous alternatives, many of which are more accurately targeted toward their needs. Or, a job advertisement may fail to find its way to the places frequented by the potential applicant — the communities, websites, or social and mobile forums that cultivate large followings from people of common interests.

This is where recruitment marketing comes in.

A recruitment marketing approach treats candidates as targeted potential customers. The recruiter owns the customer journey and is expected to identify potential candidates, convey the company’s promise of value, develop relationships with targeted talent, and bring them to the table as applicants. In the case of diverse talent, recruitment marketing begins with a critical look at the common wants and needs of a given group.

Diverse workers may have the same skills as the general population, but their career expectations and their online presence and activity may vary. They may frequent special interest websites or forums. Their preferred language may not be English. They may value family and stability instead of risk-taking and excitement.

As an example, veterans may respond well to messaging that celebrates the skills and qualities associated with their service while touching on the challenges of applying their service qualifications to meet civilian job requirements. Building a partnership with veterans’ organizations and marketing toward veteran groups will help a company round out its veteran outreach. The same mindset applies to other diverse groups, whether ethnic or cultural groups, people with disabilities, the LGBT community, or others.

Technology also plays a role in recruitment marketing. New innovations are being brought to market that work with recruitment marketing platforms to automate communications to diverse talent communities. Together, an increased understanding of talent, focused outreach and messaging, and the use of technology make recruitment marketing an essential part of talent acquisition for diverse workers.

Sourcing and Recruiting: From Advanced Digital Search to Physical Grassroots Networking

Sourcing is still very much an art, as well as a science. Great sourcing happens in the online world of social media, Boolean searches, and emerging AI-based tools, and it also takes place in traditional areas such as campus recruiting and networking through current and past employees.

Digital Search

Many, if not most, potential high-quality candidates are not actively seeking new jobs, so a sourcer must look beyond the obvious locations to identify such talent. In the online realm, a sourcer’s Boolean search string can probe the well-patrolled venues of ethnic-, gender-, or minority-focused websites and job boards, or the searcher can get creative and reveal targeted candidates through indicators of language and networks. For example, in targeting female talent, a sourcer may look for candidates by their places of education, which may be all female schools, combined with a focus on specific skills and experience. In other words, a good sourcer has the power to experiment in searching a venue, whether LinkedIn, a job board, or an organization’s own applicant tracking system (ATS).

Campus Recruiting

Campus recruiting can be a reliable source of diverse talent. While job fairs and onsite recruiting for particular roles can yield results, smart talent organizations often take a longer view. They are supporting campus recruiting with active relationship building, partnering with traditional minority schools such as historically black colleges and universities through sponsorships, internships, and other programs.  This approach has been shown to improve the pool of diverse candidates available for recruiting, and it can be applied to institutions for nearly any diverse group. A commitment of time and effort will be needed to fully cultivate that relationship. The effort may be significant, but it can yield a lasting source of quality diverse talent.

Networking Current, Past, and “Almost” Employees

Smart recruiters already understand the power of networking as a source of great talent. According to one survey cited on LinkedIn, nearly 85 percent of jobs are filled through networking. Employee referrals typically result in high-quality candidates as the employee likely has reason to believe that the role and the referred candidate are a match. Past employees are also great referral sources. Likewise, runners-up or silver medalists who applied for openings but did not get hired in the past may be the right hire for certain jobs in the future. Follow-up, fair treatment, and communication are all essential to maintaining contact and building networks. As any talent practitioner knows, these are not just good tactics for diversity recruiting; they apply to all roles and all types of candidates.

Community Involvement

Effective diversity recruiting requires an understanding of the communities in which an organization does business. Community outreach can help to improve that understanding while also helping those in the community, including potential candidates and customers, to better know the company. Organizations for women, ethnic or racial groups, veterans, or people with disabilities all provide access to diverse talent at the grassroots level. Types of community participation include:

  • Speaking and Participation in Professional Organizations: Professional organizations at local and national levels provide a rich opportunity for companies to share their knowledge, gain visibility, and network directly with potential candidates.
  • Sponsorship: Companies may opt to sponsor certain groups, whether in support of particular events or as a general sponsor. Such support can open the door to speaking opportunities, marketing, and other types of outreach to particular diverse groups.
  • Volunteer and Outreach: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs have long played a role in connecting companies to their communities, touching both potential customers and future talent. Teaching, mentorships, youth programs, and other activities all provide great opportunities to build an employer’s reputation among diverse communities. Well-executed CSR programs build awareness about the company to talent from diverse backgrounds, and they provide an effective venue for engaging employees to participate in the community.

Step 3: Candidate Evaluation and Selection

There are many opportunities to reduce bias within the evaluation and selection process. Typically, the better a company performs at ensuring consistency and objectivity, the more fair the outcome for all applicants. Examples of improvement areas include the following.

Blind Recruiting

One report found that two decades after symphony orchestras in the United States adopted blind auditions (i.e., where judges could hear, but not see, auditioning musicians) the percentage of female musicians in orchestras rose from six percent to 21 percent. In the corporate world, another study found that job seekers with ethnic sounding names needed to send out 50 percent more résumés than those with white male names and comparable qualifications before receiving a call back from an employer.

There are ways to level the field for diverse and non-diverse applicants. For example, companies can strip résumés of any information that might identify a candidate as belonging to a specific group (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity, or any other factor) prior to review. Organizations like Deloitte and BBC have adopted this tactic, and new technologies are automating the editing of candidate information to present anonymous candidates. Talent planners should expect continued innovations to hit the market that will enhance the effectiveness of blind recruiting.

Interview Process

The goal of the hiring process is to arrive at a decision for the best-fit hire based on apples-to-apples comparisons of prospective candidates against defined parameters. Traditional interviews are conversations that vary greatly for each manager, potentially undermining that apples-to-apples review.
To help reduce bias, the interview itself can be restructured for consistency, ensuring every candidate has a chance to answer a common set of questions with scoring parameters that keep the focus on compatibility with job requirements. Scoring a respondent’s answers to each interview question prior to moving to the next question can result in a more objective and detailed review, and evaluating sets of candidate responses one question at a time (i.e., all answers to question one, all answers to question two, etc.) also keeps the focus on the quality of each response.

In addition to adjusting how interviews are conducted, an organization can improve fairness by ensuring that a diverse interviewer is part of the process. A diverse interviewer brings a perspective to the process that can help reduce bias in both the interview itself and in subsequent evaluation and selection.

Diverse Interviewees

In 2002, a study of the National Football League (NFL) found that 70 percent of the players, but only six percent of head coaches, were black. In 2003, a committee led by then-Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney developed a requirement that at least one minority applicant be interviewed for any head coaching vacancy. In the 71 years between 1921 and 2002, there were seven minority head coaches in the NFL, and in the 14 years since what is now known as the “Rooney rule” was implemented, there have been 17. Facebook implemented its own version of the Rooney rule in 2015, requiring managers to consider “at least one under-represented demographic for every job opening.” Likewise, Pinterest has implemented a policy requiring that a woman and minority be interviewed for all leadership roles. More recently, studies have found that one diverse candidate may stand out in an interview, calling attention to their differences and increasing the unconscious biases at play. In fact, researchers found that the chances of hiring a woman are 79 times greater if there are two women in the candidate pool instead of one, and 194 times greater if there are two minority candidates. While adding two diverse candidates to the pool may be impractical in many situations, the findings are drawing attention to the issue in talent acquisition.


As part of the candidate evaluation process, assessments can help organizations discover great talent, regardless of diverse background, that is often hidden by traditional biases. Whether testing candidates for skills, aptitudes, or behaviors, assessments can be effective tools for helping to predict a candidate’s suitability to the unique demands of a role. While assessments are created to help provide an objective view of the candidate’s abilities and behavioral tendencies, biases can also find their way into the process. Questions that are asked in pre-employment screening tests may provide an unfair advantage to certain candidates over others. Major assessment providers have the expertise and resources to minimize bias in the tools they provide — an advantage over in-house development of pre-employment tests. Likewise, use of multiple assessments, where practical, reduces overdependence on one approach and minimizes the influence of biases in any one assessment.

Training and Change Management

Bias cannot be eliminated by training, but education can help boost managers’ understanding of the issues at play and help to ensure they embrace changes in the interview process. Constant communication and change management is important here, and a good talent partner, whether an in-house HR expert or external talent solutions provider, can work hand-in-hand with managers to foster their participation in the change.

Culture Fit

Words shape mindsets when evaluating candidates, and examining how we talk about candidates can yield opportunities to eliminate bias. For example, many organizations are replacing the idea of “culture fit” in their evaluations. The term is meant to indicate intangible ways an employee may work well in the company, but it can also be a touch point for unconscious bias. Facebook has eliminated culture fit from its evaluation criteria. Pandora has replaced the term with “culture add,” indicating that a candidate can have something unique to offer to the workforce other than simply “fitting in.” In both cases, organizations have taken an active look at a long-standing evaluation process and found a new opportunity to improve.

Use of Technology

The advent of AI has given rise to applications that can detect and correct bias in job descriptions. Likewise, applications in video interviewing, such as HireVue, are stripping bias from the interview by providing on-demand, structured questions that are consistent for every candidate. This feature enforces conscious consideration into developing questions for the position, and it ensures that every interviewee has a fair chance to address the questions that matter.

Measuring Results

Objectivity is the enemy of bias, and nothing brings to bear the power of objectivity better than data and performance measurement. Perhaps as much as any other point in talent acquisition or management, the hiring or promotion decision is the most effective for enforcing D&I accountability. How diverse is the slate of candidates considered for review? From that slate, how many diverse candidates are being hired? The data will tell the story.

Diversity Best Practices Make All Talent Acquisition Stronger

Whether talking about continuous measurement and improvement, or applying bias-reducing tactics, the principles of sound diversity recruiting will improve all aspects of talent acquisition. The result is not only good for talent, but it is also good for business, expanding the talent pipeline by reaching out to diverse workers with the skills and experience to succeed.

Learn more about how today’s smartest companies are turning diversity and inclusion into a talent and business advantage by downloading our report, “Talent, Business, and Competition: A New World of Diversity & Inclusion.

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