Many organisations are promoting diversity throughout their workforce to create a competitive edge in the market. However, there are questions as to how bias in the recruitment and selection process hinders an organisation’s efforts. Snéha Khilay discusses bias in the recruitment and selection process, and its effect on organisations who are trying to achieve a competitive edge with reference to some thought provoking cases. 

Being good is easy, what is difficult is being just.

Victor Hugo

Latest research conducted by McKinsey indicates that organisations in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians*.

@ Flickr Alan Cleaver

@ Flickr Alan Cleaver

Other research has shown that teams with a wide spread of diversity outperform homogeneous teams.  Too many similarities within the team members can lead to teams being complacent resulting in poor decision making process, whereas allowing for multiple perspectives lead to innovation and more consideration being given to potential risks.

In spite of general acknowledgement of a sound business case for implementing diversity in organisations, concerns about the low percentage of black and minority ethnic colleagues at middle to senior management levels continue.  One of the roots of this gap could be on the recruitment processes. Are these processes robust in monitoring and evaluating whether the outcomes are reasonable and fair? Recent research conducted by Race for Opportunity found that only 29% of Black and Minority Ethnic candidates, applying through a recruitment agency, were successful in securing jobs compared to 54% of their white counterparts. A colleague from a recruitment agency mentioned that her agency is hesitant about putting forward CVs with unusual or ‘foreign’ names as these CVs are often rejected by their clients. Furthermore recruiting managers seem to be spend more time in evaluating positive information on white candidates’ CVs and dismiss relevant and positive information on CVs of non-white applicants.

Bob** Founder and Managing Director of an IT company (300 employees) recently indicated that he would only appoint someone who thinks, acts and talks like him. He added that during the interview process, he assesses whether the candidate has the potential to be a Director of his company. In essence Bob is actively seeking candidates whom he considers to be a ‘good fit’ to the organisation.

Using Bob as an archetypical panel member in an interview process, he would most likely align himself with those who are like him and thereby subconsciously reject candidates who he considers not to be a good fit. Malcolm Gladwell claims that within the first 7 seconds of meeting someone, we make eleven judgements about the person and subconsciously we gather data to justify and maintain these judgements.

©Flickr user FutUndBeidl

©Flickr user FutUndBeidl

Let’s take this further. We have two candidates for the same job, Mike who is white and male and Sukhdev who is male and Sikh, wearing a turban. During the interview, Bob, identifying more with Mike would inadvertently give Mike the ‘benefit of doubt’, if Mike stumbled or was hesitant in response to a question. Bob would put him at ease and show patience. By contrast, Bob might not be so tolerant/patient of Sukhdev’s hesitation. Bob’s conclusion would be Sukhdev is not confident or articulate and therefore will not fit into our organisation’.  Bob’s perceptions about the interviews would constitute his reality.  Bob might feel that he had conducted all interviews similarly, but not recognise that his decision of appointing Mike was subconsciously driven by his alliance to  and feeling comfortable with Mike. ‘It’s like going on a date, you just know when you are compatible’ Quote from a recruiting manager

Often there is the concept of social awkwardness, a process of trying to build rapport with Black and Minority Ethnic candidates. I call these the ‘Are you sure?’ moments all linked to perceptions of personal norms. In a recent interview, a candidate, again wearing a turban introduced himself as ‘Philip Singh’. He was asked, ‘are you sure that is your name’. Philip responded with a yes to which the interviewer asked whether he was christened with the name. Philip’s parents simply liked the name. In another interview, a black male candidate asked about support networks for LGBT staff. He was met with the response of ‘Are you sure you are gay, I don’t think I have met anyone who is Black and Gay’. In another situation, a black man on appointment was told by our archetypical Bob, ‘I have never had a black man in my team, are you sure you will teach me how to behave myself so that I don’t make mistakes on race issues? Although we can argue with a vehement ‘surely not in this day and age!’ the reality highlights a different truth. Incidentally in the latter two scenarios, both candidates with their wealth of knowledge, skills and experience turned down the job offers.

At the same time, there is the flip side, do the rapport building questions from the interview panel members highlight differences? In one situation during the social pleasantries exchange stage of an interview, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab was asked whether she would be fasting during Ramadan. She subsequently raised a formal complaint against the interview panel members, convinced that she was not offered a job because she was Muslim.

Fundamentally if organisations want to have a competitive business edge, considerable care needs to be given during the recruitment and selection process to ensure that relevant, valid and reliable information is taken into consideration.  There should be a process in place that provides justification or explanation when distinguishing potential candidates from those who are considered as not suitable. There needs to be some form of accountability on attitudes and behaviours. The quote from Victor Hugo (1802) sums it well “Being good is easy, what is difficult is being just.”

*While correlation does not equal causation (greater gender and ethnic diversity in corporate leadership doesn’t automatically translate into more profit), the correlation does indicate that when companies commit themselves to diverse leadership, they are more successful. Mackenzie Report

** Names have been changed

SnehaSnéha Khilay is a diversity and leadership consultant/trainer. Snéha carries out consultancy and training on Diversity and Inclusion, Managing Diversity and the Law, Cultural Competency, Dignity at Work and Conflict Resolution. Snéha has published articles on diversity and leadership in Management Today, Start Your Business, Simply Business, Professional Manager, Change Board, People and People Management. Visit Snéha’s website at