How to achieve diversity through merit-based hiring

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Howard Grosvenor
UK Director of Professional Services
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Employers worldwide are recognising that to grow their businesses and address the challenges and opportunities they face, they need to be diverse and inclusive. This is not just to fulfil legal compliance or their moral obligation. There are sound commercial reasons why today’s workplaces should reflect the diversity of the population.

With a diverse talent pool, you’ll benefit from a variety of viewpoints that can help you to better understand and meet the needs of diverse customers. This is financially beneficial, as studies show that organisations with diverse management teams perform better, and it also enhances your employer brand.

It is human nature to like people who are similar to us; but this can be dangerous in the way it influences hiring decisions. If you restrict yourself to recruiting people from similar backgrounds, and with similar experiences, you risk narrowing your appeal in your customer base and ultimately you are less adaptable in the market.

A fundamental challenge for today’s employers is therefore to recruit a broad range of talented people based on their potential, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, culture, past personal circumstances, age or religion.

Taking action

Some organisations are trying to achieve this goal by taking two commendable actions:

1. Introducing ‘name-blind’ recruitment practices.

Employers such as the BBC, the Civil Service, Deloitte, HSBC, KPMG and Virgin Money have pledged to remove names from application forms and CVs to reduce possible discrimination and ‘elitist hiring’.

Others are conducting school and university-blind interviews to counter unconscious bias.

2. Setting diversity targets.

Recognising the importance of diversity by measuring it and having a realistic aspiration that, all other things being equal, the diversity of your workforce should reflect the diversity of the population at large, is a good thing.

To be clear, positively discriminating to achieve your targets - for example, selecting someone because they are female - is illegal and unfair.

Interviews are inherently subjective and line managers are sometimes accused of recruiting ‘in their own image.’

But aspiring to achieve a diverse workforce, implementing measures that are fair and focus on someone’s ability to do the job, and monitoring your progress towards your aspiration to inform further action, is a very good thing.

However, these steps do not go far enough. Indeed, in the case of ‘blind’ evaluation of CVs, the fundamental problem of the CV not being a good predictor of subsequent work performance in any case is not addressed at all.

Implementing a merit-based approach

Ultimately, all recruitment should be merit-based. Here’s how to achieve that:

1. Be clear about what you want.

How does your organisation define ‘talent’? What do you mean by ‘potential’?

The necessary first step to merit-based hiring is to understand what you’re really looking for in people. Employers often try to uncover what ‘good’ looks like in the role (they should also consider what ‘bad’ looks like, as that can be just as revealing). But unless you undertake very effective and objective profiling, you risk bringing unconscious bias into the process.

For example, a recruiter or business stakeholder may decide that to be successful in the role, a candidate will need to be a ‘confident team player’ without giving further thought to what that actually means and why it is important in respect of the job objectives.

Your attraction strategy should encourage applicants with different educational and socio-economic backgrounds.

So, the challenge is to identify and specify the behaviours, skills and knowledge that are actually required in the role, and to work out the relative importance of these different elements.

Think about what is easy to develop, versus hard to develop, and compare your ‘predictors of success’ against external competency models to ‘cross-validate’ them. If you set the right criteria at the outset, you can tackle unconscious bias at source.

2. Widen your reach.

Don’t restrict yourself to the same schools, universities or qualifications. Your attraction strategy should encourage applicants with different educational and socio-economic backgrounds.

Reach out to target audiences that will bring balance to your applicant pool.

3. Use psychometric assessments.

Good assessments can accurately predict a person’s potential to perform in a role. They’re also fair and objective.

Assessments will help you to find what you’re looking for, so ensure that you’re assessing for the right things! A broad range of assessments - including ability, personality, motivation, values, integrity and creativity - are available to suit specific needs. Situational Judgement Questionnaires and simulations can also be developed to better understand how candidates will respond in real workplace scenarios.

Another benefit is that assessment data can be integrated with HR information systems to create ‘predictive analytics’ that can help you make better talent decisions for the future.

It’s important to give all candidates an opportunity to practise your assessments beforehand and to support them throughout the process. Used effectively, either for individual candidates or as part of an assessment centre, these tests can help you to hire on merit.

4. Remove bias from the interview process.

Interviews are inherently subjective and line managers are sometimes accused of recruiting ‘in their own image’, in other words they choose people who are similar to themselves.

To overcome this, hiring managers (and assessors in assessment centres) should be trained to understand and avoid unconscious bias - and to spot ‘potential’ rather than ‘actual’ skills. Interviewers should ask structured interview questions that probe for the desired attitudes and behaviours.

5. Monitor your selection process.

Recruiters should continually review their selection process to ensure that a diverse mix of candidates is successfully progressing through each stage.

If this isn’t the case, questions should be asked to understand why not and whether bias is to blame.

These five steps can help employers to achieve the business benefits of diversity and inclusion, by making entrance to, and progression within, the organisation genuinely meritocratic.

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