Author Profile Picture

David Willett

The Open University

Corporate Director

Read more about David Willett

Is bias holding back effective recruitment and training?


We all like to believe that we are tolerant and open-minded people, but to what extent do we let bias, both conscious and unconscious, get in the way of our recruitment decisions? We’ve come a long way from the prejudice of the past, but there is still a way to go.

The latest market research commissioned by The Open University has made for difficult reading for those of us who believe we’re doing all we can to create a diverse workforce. It reveals that employer bias still exists in some organisations, and our prime concern is that diversity and innovation in organisations is suffering as a result.

Managers are letting unconscious bias affect hiring and training choices

29% of senior managers admit they hire people just like them. Considering their typical social makeup – AB socio-economic groups, university educated etc. – this should be a cause of great concern amongst managers.

It is completely understandable that managers want to hire people who will integrate well with the rest of their team and who have similar social values, interests and leisure pursuits. However, this also means that new hires will tend to have had a similar upbringing, a university education and most likely, excellent opportunities.

Consequently, this also means that those from different backgrounds simply don’t stand a chance, which limits diversity in the workplace and the benefits that come with it.

Education is one particular area where bias exists. 55% of managers admitted to being unwilling to take on a new employee without a degree and train them up in the skills required, regardless of latent potential, ambition and willingness to learn.

A similar bias exists once employed, as 31% of employees with no higher education have no access to workplace training to improve their skills. In fact, they’re 32% less likely than their university educated peers to be offered training.

What does this mean for organisations?

62% of business leaders believe that diverse organisations are more innovative. If there is a lack of balance between genders, ages, races and social classes there is also lack in the breadth of thinking needed to drive creativity and retain a diverse client base, which limits business potential significantly.

Previous commissioned market research from The Open University revealed that 90 per cent of senior managers have struggled to hire people with the right skills in the last 12 months, but they could be sitting on a pool of untapped potential because they overlook people from different backgrounds.

67% of those without higher education currently hold low or semi-skilled roles – if these people were offered training they could meet the demand for higher-level skills, which is likely to increase further as the challenge of automation becomes more significant.

The apprenticeship opportunity

Apprenticeships could be used as a tool to future-proof organisations, offering the opportunity to train these workers in the higher skills required, but the ‘stigma’ associated with them is holding back progress.

Although we’ve seen great improvement in perceptions since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy and degree apprenticeships, 16% of senior managers still believe that apprenticeships are for those who could not get into university and 13% think less of someone who has taken that route.

Organisations that embrace the new apprenticeship levy could reap the rewards, as the funding can be used to train those from different backgrounds who may not have had the opportunity to attend university in the past, bringing in diversity and addressing the skills shortage simultaneously.

Overcoming bias in your organisation

There are a number of tried and tested ways of improving diversity in your organisation, from changing your recruitment and training processes to training your staff:

De-personalise job applications

Change your selection process so that recruiters cannot see applicants’ names, ages and universities. This ensures interviewees are selected based on merit alone and improves the chances of getting people from diverse backgrounds.

Remove degree entry requirements

Setting a degree as a minimum entry requirement automatically shuts out many workers from less privileged backgrounds who could have spent time learning skills in a previous role or be eager and motivated to learn once in the role.

Choose a diverse interview panel

Making your interview panel as diverse as possible, in terms of social, educational and employment background, reduces the risk of selecting a candidate based on natural chemistry and commonality.

Test applicants

If you’re worried about bias during the ‘Q&A’ phase of the interview, try testing employees with tasks they will face in the role. Then compare applicants directly against the other, reducing the impact of ‘likeability’.

Establish hiring criteria

Setting out clear criteria to assess candidates against prior to a round of interviews means that unconscious bias is less likely to play a role in the hiring process.

Alternatively, try strengths-based recruitment where you hire candidates based on innate strengths and motivators who have the potential to reach peak performance in their roles. This is very different to identifying candidates who just have the skills, experience and capabilities to do the job.

Set diversity targets

Diversity goals can raise the issue up the agenda, but they can also result in backlash from employees who find them unfair, or believe they devalue their role.

To guard against this, highlight the business case for increasing diversity: growth, innovation and ultimately success.

Train the leadership team

A top-down approach is crucial for ensuring that organisations boost their diversity and equality – those who decide on training opportunities and set out workplace culture need to be leading by example, and may need additional training themselves.

Consider where and how you’re advertising for a role

Think about the wording you use in job descriptions and advertising carefully, as some words can put certain groups off.

Consider joining a mentoring scheme or partnering with an equal opportunities organisation in your area. With bias, it’s easy to fall into the traps set by our unconscious minds.

The desire to establish good workplace culture has become embedded in the minds of business leaders – and it does bring with it the benefits of motivating and retaining talented staff.

However, organisations need to check their unconscious bias and ensure they are not overlooking staff from different backgrounds, which is essential for remaining competitive and innovative.

Author Profile Picture
David Willett

Corporate Director

Read more from David Willett

Get the latest from HRZone.

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.