Discrimination. Prejudice. Bias. Not positive words. Human nature has its dark side and discriminatory behavior is one manifestation that we all need to fight against for obvious moral reasons. To start, the United States is founded on principles of equality that demand this. In business these words and behaviors are as dangerous as in any context or situation, not only for moral reasons or the threat of legal repercussions but also because it means that you are overlooking great talent and missing out on the contribution that could be made to the success of your company. Simply put, companies that make a conscious effort to factor out prejudice and bias in the hiring process will have a competitive advantage over those that don’t.
Generally we think of discrimination based on race, and that certainly is a primary example and one that greatly initiated sensitivity to the issue and many of the protective laws we have to combat it and provide recourse. But we have also recognized that prejudice is based on other things – gender, religion, age, or sexual orientation, and so we try to avoid and protect against that too. The truth though is that bias can crop up in many different ways and you may not even recognize that it’s happening, especially during the hiring process.
Let’s start with just one example – would you interview someone who has been out of work for more than a year?
Last year, a study for the Boston Federal Reserve Bank by Rand Ghayad, a visiting scholar at the Boston Fed and a PhD candidate in economics at Northeastern University, and William Dickens, a professor of economics at Northeastern University, showed that the long-term unemployed (defined as six months or longer) were less likely to get a call back. Resumes for fictitious people were submitted to job openings with the resumes being identical except for variances in how long they'd been out of work, how often they'd switched jobs, and whether they had any industry experience. Everything else was kept constant. The candidates were all male, all had randomly-selected (and racially ambiguous) names, and all had similar education backgrounds.
The study found that long-term unemployment trumped other qualities. Employers called back candidates with less industry experience or those who had switched jobs frequently before they would call back someone with a lengthy period of unemployment. The bias towards unemployment was stronger than the positive of industry experience (something that for most employers is a must have) or the negative of job hopping. There is no evidence showing that long-term unemployment is a good predictor of future performance, so it’s troubling, at the least, to find that people are discriminating in this way.
Companies that think this way are hurting themselves and missing out on potentially great employees because they are prejudiced. The study, and others over the past few years, show that some companies intentionally throw out candidates with LTU or advertise that the unemployed shouldn’t even apply but there are others who may not even be fully aware that they are doing so. Of course there are some unemployed people who are unemployed for reasons that relate to their performance, skills, or lack thereof, but you need to find out about this specifically and not assume that all unemployed people are a risk.
What other biases are at work when someone reviews resumes?
Well let’s think about it – do you weed out candidates who didn’t graduate from Stanford, MIT, or a similarly well-known universities? Do you put a person in the “no” pile based on their previous title(s)? Are you more impressed by someone who works at Apple or Google than someone who works at a company you may not have heard of? These are examples of prejudice as well, and falling prey to any of these has the potential to keep you from finding great talent. Other factors such as industry experience, a positive attitude, the ability to learn, or being a good team player can be more important to consider in evaluating a potential hire and are better predictors of success than graduating from a certain university, working at Google, or their employment status.
So let's repeat the most important point: companies that make a conscious effort to factor out prejudice and bias in the hiring process will have a competitive advantage over those that don’t. In the IT industry, where competition for good employees is especially fierce, this is more important than ever. When you make hiring decisions based on sound criteria instead of biased thinking, you’re doing yourself, your company, and our economy as a whole, a big favor. Be aware of the potential for prejudicial thinking when you’re hiring and take steps to avoid or mitigate it and you'll find yourself with some great new employees that others have overlooked!
CEO and President
ATR International, Inc.