“I have worked with many recruitment agencies. In fact, some people asked for what in French is called a BBR; it’s a code to say a “Bleu-Blanc-Rouge” – the colours of our national flag. It was to tell the recruitment agency ‘I am a racist company but I do not want it to appear as such so I use an external supplier to bypass the law. And you, the one I’m paying, it’s up to you to manage this, but I want a good white man in my organisation’ (male, 33 years, HR director, energy sector).”

The labour market is becoming increasingly diverse. Now, more than ever, it is important that recruitment processes are free from bias for ethical, economic and legal reasons. Discrimination, defined as giving differential treatment to a person based on membership to a specific social group, has a negative impact on individual workers and organisations alike. Much has been discussed about the causes and consequences of discriminatory practices in organisations’ recruitment practices, but we know less about how individuals in charge of recruitment may deliberately discriminate in recruitment.

Drawing on 28 interviews with individuals working in recruitment in organisations in France, we explore how individuals use their relative power or authority to intentionally circumvent laws and regulations regarding discrimination during hiring procedures.

All interviewees reported that some members of their organisational hierarchy had both knowingly or covertly engaged in strategies to circumvent internal policies regarding anti-discrimination and diversity. We identified two main strategies used to intentionally discriminate in the recruitment process: in-house discrimination in recruitment and outsourcing the recruitment to an external agency.

In the in-house strategy, individuals with substantial decision-making authority use their power to overrule recommendations regarding a candidate at the final stage of the hiring process. Moreover, discriminatory practices are justified either through highlighting that some legislation is vague or by interpreting the law in a way that best suits the organisation. In doing so, any costs, administrative procedures and constraints for co-workers are stressed as reasons to select a non-diverse candidate.

An outsourcing recruitment strategy is often adopted to save time and increase efficiency in an organisation. However, when recruitment is outsourced to specialised agencies, the client organisation may use several techniques to make the recruitment agencies comply with their demands. Firstly, the burden of complying with rules and regulations is diverted to the recruitment agencies rather than the client organisation having to deal with discrimination in-house. Secondly, “codes” are used to make recruitment agencies understand the client’s candidate preference. Organisations are aware of their authority relationship with the recruitment agency and use their power to impose their wishes. Thirdly, pressure is placed on the external recruitment agency through threats, such as placing the agency on a “blacklist” for future collaboration.

Why do we care?

Discrimination leads to a less-than-optimal use of human resources and therefore hinders the positive outcomes that a diverse workforce is believed to bring. Employers therefore do not get access to more information about the background, skills, or experience of applicants as discrimination often seems to occur at the early stage of the recruitment process. This sustains inequality and disparities between majority and minority job applicants, as well as creating a considerable risk for an organisation by not complying with the law.

What can we do about it?

The ambiguous nature of anti-discrimination laws and rules in France is likely to be part of the problem. When laws are open to multiple interpretations it is easier to get away with non-compliance of those rules. As such, we recommend that procedures, rules and laws both on governmental and organisational levels be reformulated to ensure that non-compliance would be more difficult. Conversely, having some form of individual and organisational learning associated with these changes could be very beneficial. A strengthening of rules and regulations may also present opportunities for educating individuals and managers in the subtleties and dangers of discriminatory practices.

In overcoming discriminatory practices and enhancing equality and diversity at work, diversity audits could be a helpful tool. These audits are essential elements of understanding how the organisation performs with regards to diversity issues and where areas for improvement exist. Assessing the overt and covert use of certain code words within the company should be monitored to make sure there are no discriminatory or unfair employment practices. Staffing decisions must be further scrutinised to ensure they are not made in a biased or “stereotypical” manner. These actions would offer a greater chance that individuals are appraised on job-related skills, knowledge, capabilities and valid performance metrics.

The implementation of a code of conduct would reduce discriminatory practices in recruitment if such a code is enforced and in line with the overall organisational culture. However, we highlight that establishing responsibility and the support of top management is needed for diversity results if positive outcomes are to be achieved. Making individuals aware of potential discriminatory recruitment practices, making them responsible for their behaviour and creating an ethical organisational culture are all needed to reduce discriminatory recruitment practices.

Workforce analytics and job testing may also serve as additional means to improve the quality of the recruitment decisions, potentially reducing agency problems between firms and HR managers. The information provided by such tools can be verified and perhaps less prone to biases, thereby limiting managerial discretion and relying more heavily on test results. Reducing biases in individuals and discriminatory recruitment practices will ultimately improve the quality of future employees. By increasing our understanding of recruitment discrimination, we seek to help practitioners combat discrimination and promote equality and diversity in organisations.



Sophie Hennekam is an associate professor at Audencia Business School in France. She specialises in diversity management and has published in journals such as Human Relations and Journal of Vocational Behavior.



Jonathan Peterson is an assistant Professor at the IAE Aix-en-Provence in France. He specialises in careers of knowledge workers and has published in Employee Relations and the International Journal of Human Resource Management.



Loubna Tahssain-Gay is an associate professor at Excelia Group La Rochelle Business School in France. She specialises in HRM and diversity management, and has published in Human Resource Management Journal and Management Decision.



Jean-Pierre Dumazert is head of the department of human resources management (HRM) and an associate professor at Excelia Group La Rochelle Business School. He specialises in HRM and diversity management, and has published in journals such as the International Journal of Human Resource Management and Gender, Work and Organization.