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Overcoming inherent bias in recruitment

Andy McLeod loves hunting. Think on that for a minute. Did it raise any strong emotion in you? Was your knee-jerk reaction one of indignation? Or did you think nothing of it?

Andy, the Director of Sales & Partnerships with New Zealand’s Fluent IQ, wants our industry to talk about unconscious bias.

Andy McLeod, Director of Sales and Partnerships at Fluent IQ

With more than 25 years in the recruitment game he has plenty of tales to tell and has seen first-hand the impact that bias has on business and candidates alike.

Back to Andy’s hunting. If we were to tell you that Andy’s hunting is about a sustainable field-to-plate philosophy, that he is an Honorary Officer protecting marine life and hates sport hunting, would it change your initial thinking about the topic?

If you had a reaction to hearing Andy was a hunter – good or bad – chances are you are being influenced by some sort of bias. And that is the issue at hand.

Bias is often inherent, it happens automatically, and it can be hard to keep in check if not properly monitored.

This of course comes into play within the talent sector everyday and is posing some big challenges for the entire sector, on both sides of the fence.

Everyone has bias – that’s not the problem

“We all have our biases, it’s part of who we are as people, and that is not always the spectre the word comes with” Andy said. “When I am at a party, I gravitate towards people who like to fish and hunt because that’s what I like to do, that’s still bias.

“Hunting is something some people may have a negative reaction to. And again, that is also fine because bias is an emotive area – particularly when it starts to impact on others.

“I think as an industry, we need to start talking more about what forms of bias exist, and how they can be negated in the recruitment process.”

For Andy, part of the issue has been what he describes as the “de-humanising” of candidates in the recruitment sector.

“As a sector, we have lost our humanity to some extent,” Andy said. “During my time in the sector, we have definitely shifted to being too focused on the processing of candidates.”

Andy pointed to a recent global study of 4,000 professionals on LinkedIn which revealed the number one learning and development priority for 2018 is soft skills for talent development teams.

“The sector is already identifying a demand for rehumanising the work-force and a focus on soft skills, driven by the need for effective and harmonious communication within the work force,” he said.

“It is becoming apparent that the real value in a hire lies in the ability for communication, a key skill for any role. At the moment, we have bias blocking many skilled candidates from becoming successful hires. The sector continues to allow for soft skills to be assumed, often heavily impacted by inherent bias.

“You can now see the challenges we are facing and how the impact of an inherent bias within recruitment is forging major institutional issues.”

“As an industry, we haven’t skilled consultants up to give them the depth of insight required to understand what a business needs; or more importantly, the skills to push back when bias is encountered from the client.

“So consultants tend to focus on just getting the closest matches to what they think will pass for interview; the least barriers to resistance that are pushed further by time constraints.

“We need to see a shift in this thinking, we need recruiters to acknowledge this ‘skimming past the talent’ and strive towards deeper engagement.”

The business case for addressing bias

Increasingly, we are seeing the benefits of diverse workforces and with the skills shortage we are currently experiencing expected to get much worse, there is a clear business case for addressing this, sooner rather than later.

“There are already massive skills shortages we are seeing across every sector, everywhere,” Andy said.

“There will be a shortage of some 800,000-plus people within the Australian IT sector by 2020. New Zealand’s health sector is expected to face a shortage of 90,000 primary health care workers by 2020. In the UK, 25 per cent of their entire National Health Service workforce will be retiring in five years’ further increasing the competition for qualified staff in this sector.

“These statistics are alarming, and reflected across numerous sectors, on a global scale. Quite simply put, we do not have room for bias in the recruitment industry.

“We are going to need to be equipped to embrace the global talent pool in order to address this dire shortage of workers. The thinking needs to change now, today.”

One of the greatest biases – conscious or unconscious – Andy believes the NZ and Australian recruitment sectors face is an aversion to candidates from non-English speaking backgrounds.

A study carried out by the Australian National University, revealed that applicants with a name indicating Chinese heritage “would need to put in 68 per cent more applications than an Anglo-named applicant to get the same number of call backs”.

The same study revealed applicants with a Middle Eastern-sounding name needed to put in 64 per cent more applications to get an equivalent number of call backs; those with indigenous names needed 35 per cent more and applicants with an Italian name 12 per cent more.

This clearly shows that recruiters often overlook a pool of highly talented and qualified candidates because of a perhaps understandable, but often misguided belief that they will not have the language skills to do the job.

“There is a bias that if I pick up a phone and hear a thick accent, I may make an assumption that their written and spoken English are not suitable for a job without actually investigating if that is the case,” Andy said.

“However, an accent does not always indicate poor quality English. Some candidates from other ethnic backgrounds may well have a more advanced level of written English than many ‘local’ candidates.”

Andy sees this all too often in his job, where a person’s accent is not reflective of their English language skills.

Fluent IQ specialises in testing the English communication skills of candidates for the recruitment sector, enabling businesses to avoid bias in hiring.

The company’s mission is to “overcome bias while empowering recruiters to make informed, low-risk business decisions”.

Pools of talent found behind accents

So how do you overcome bias, if you are not even fully aware that you are acting on it?

“A good recruiter needs to be an investigator, one who is commercially savvy enough to understand what works for a business and understand who the right candidate will be,” Andy explained. “This is something technology and AI will never be able to duplicate.

“In this technologically focused digital age we are lucky enough to have tools we can rely on to support us, help us identify candidate strengths, the ever-important communication skill set all while embracing diversity.

“We recognise the road to diversity and inclusion may be a long one because we humans are a funny bunch so bias will be around for a while. Perhaps we can start with just acknowledging ‘I have bias’ and work from there ?”

As a corporate member of RCSA, FluentIQ is offering a 10 per cent discount on its volume discount packages and a complimentary 10 test trial of its English Communication Capability Testing to all RCSA members. To find out more, email

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