Tackling recruitment bias in the digital age

Phil Rimmer examines the impact of digital technology in eradicating unconscious bias when selecting talent

12 years ago, the UK government legislated against discrimination in the workplace and in wider society by passing the 2010 Equality Act, which sought to provide a level of protection against harassment and create more equal opportunities for under-represented groups. 

Since then, much of the corporate world has turned to digital technologies to increase diversity and inclusion (D&I) and transform the hiring process. Social networks and employment websites have become vital tools to reach a larger pool of talent and bring a broader range of experiences into the hiring shortlist. 

Artificial intelligence, from CV masking tools to apps scanning gendered terms in job adverts, has started to support firms in circumventing human flaws and tackling unconscious biases. Even more prominent is perhaps the shift to online recruiting, which has been hugely accelerated by the pandemic and the simultaneous need to hire remotely. 

While it is fair to say that D&I improvements across organisations have been palpable since the Equality Act came into effect, many people continue to be left behind in Britain today.

Is technology responsible for entrenching exclusion? 

Perhaps. Employers should tread carefully when over-relying on digital solutions to overcome their recruitment prejudice, as technology may, in fact, generate new forms of insidious discrimination. 

Think about all the steps that a candidate may be asked to complete throughout the recruitment process, from uploading a CV and cover letter onto a platform, to taking an online assessment or video interview.

We should not just assume that everyone has been similarly well-equipped to embrace the digital shift. 

2021 government figures, in fact, show quite the opposite: 21 per cent of UK adults do not have the essential digital skills needed for day-to-day life and only half of low-income households have home internet access.

What’s more, it’s those already disadvantaged by age, education, disability, or income, who lack a voice and visibility in the digital world. With hiring increasingly happening online, under-represented groups can suffer a twofold blow. 

This is not to say that digital solutions in recruiting should be condemned and fully ruled out, but rather combined with the experienced eye of a professional.

So how can we counteract unconscious bias in the digital age? 

Being aware of our own prejudice is the first step to become fairer recruiters. Our minds often make decisions intuitively, and right from sourcing, screening and shortlisting applicants, we might be discriminating against a candidate without even realising. 

To beat the knee-jerk reaction to the ‘wrong’ applicant, it’s therefore important to reflect on the biases we may have by asking ourselves questions such as, ‘when am I more likely to favour someone and downplay someone else?’. 

Awareness is not enough

Imagine a plan to quit smoking that counts the number of cigarettes you have every day and leaves it at that. 

Concrete actions go a long way and they can be as simple as asking candidates whether any reasonable adjustments should be made to the application process. If the answer is yes, employers should offer alternatives, such as adapting the format of the application or suggesting to conduct an interview in a mutually-convenient venue instead of online. Avoiding organising activities around the assumption that all candidates can use, or access, the latest technology is paramount. 

But, of course, the spectrum of disadvantage is broad and far-reaching and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to address it. Instead, displaying empathy to applicants, anticipating the potential barriers and tailoring our response to their exact needs can be the most beneficial course of action for both parties. 

Creating a workplace where differences are cherished

As technology increasingly penetrates into the recruitment process, we should be mindful in regarding it as the only avenue to a fairer work environment. 

Rather, recruiters should consider a combination of innovative digital solutions and their own empathetic spirit to truly diversify hiring and build a workplace where differences are cherished rather than simply tolerated. 

Phil Rimmer is head of HR at Slater Heelis