Bias Busters: A Key to Diversity

A new study finds that firms pick white candidates 9% more often—unless they take certain key steps.

A new study confirms that a name that sounds Black can systematically prevent a person from getting a job interview. But the same data, from a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, highlights how some firms are effectively overcoming that bias.

Researchers sent 80,000 résumés to 10,000 entry-level job postings at around 100 large US companies. All the résumés listed the same skills and qualifications; the difference was that some applicants had names typically associated with white people, while others had names often associated with Black people. On average, employers contacted the presumed white applicants 9.5% more often than they did the presumed Black applicants.

Experts say that comparable studies have been done over the last two decades, often with similar results. “It just shows how pervasive the bias is, and that many firms are not using best practices,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global strategist for diversity, equity and inclusion. In the most recent study, companies did not, on average, treat male and female applicants differently.

But researchers also made another discovery: Firms with the smallest gap (or no gap at all) in hiring shared some key practices. For one, they received résumés at a single HR site, rather than at regional centers. This might not matter much in and of itself, experts say—unless the recruiters at that one location are trained in avoiding implicit biases, or are themselves diverse. “The further you go out in the field, the less people may be cognizant of various biases,” says Fayruz Kirtzman, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global DE&I diagnostic solution leader.

Another bias buster: companies testing candidates on certain skills rather than requiring them to have a college degree. Skills-based hiring has become more prevalent since the pandemic. “You prioritize skills over pedigree,” says David Ellis, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global talent acquisition transformation. This potentially eliminates biases a recruiter might have toward a school, he says. “It  puts less emphasis on the résumé, and more on what the candidate is doing.”

Another way to reduce the bias on the front end of job recruiting, experts say, is to strip names from résumés entirely. If a company wants to initiate a so-called “blind” review process, recruiters should also scrub résumés for any affiliations that might indicate the person’s race (membership in a historically Black fraternity, for instance).

Experts caution that while these techniques are important, they won’t be effective unless the company drills down in its efforts. Interviewers and hiring managers need to be trained in avoiding bias. Beyond the actual recruiting process, companies should consider internships or other programs to establish connections with people as early as high school. “There are lot of people who may have no knowledge of your organization. If people knew you as a company, they’d apply,” says Alina Polonskaia, global leader of Korn Ferry’s DE&I Consulting practice. 


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