Hiring Managers Must Overcome Bias to Get Access to the Whole Labour Market

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There is evidence to suggest that hiring managers may be inadvertently excluding parts of the labour market when they select new employees. For example, where candidates apply for jobs for which they are over-qualified, some managers give reasons for not selecting such as ‘we don’t think you’ll stay’ or simply ‘you’re too good for the job’.  They perhaps worry that the new recruits will overshadow colleagues. Whilst there is always the argument that managers should recruit those who aspire to the job, it seems illogical that managers would want to preselect out able candidates.   Rejecting such candidates would seem to fly against both the business case for including everyone possible and moral viewpoints.

Why is it then that such excuses are used? Can it be that someone is indeed overqualified? And is it reasonable to surmise that someone who is overqualified will not stay in a job and will move on in search of a job that better fits their skills even given the current economic climate?
This blog looks at these issues and concludes that bias and prejudice may play a part along with a lack of objectivity and skill in the interview process. We counsel that it is critical that hiring managers ask themselves what the firm really wants and drive only to achieve that rather than permitting tacit requirements to floating to the decision process.

Difficulties in Bias and Prejudice

Managers will likely have many years of experience in recruiting staff. They will have built a picture of the workers currently in the firm and those who have been in the firm and since left. Within this picture they will have built opinions, for example that older workers are only working towards retirement and therefore are uncommitted or that younger people always have a poorer sickness absence record. Such pictures lead to bias and prejudice: that all older workers are uncommitted and therefore older workers should not be appointed or that all young people have poor sickness absence and therefore someone more mature should be sought.

The difficulty with allowing such bias to drive recruitment decisions is that the hiring manager excludes parts of the pool of candidates before having actually seen them. They are excluding parts of the labour market before making an objective assessment and hence the best person for the job might not be selected.

Taking this to the limit, we might see bias and prejudice in the employment of women and ethnic minorities. Managers are of course well aware that the Equality Act 2010 provides legislation to prevent such practice. But there is no legislation to prevent and few companies have policies to overcome perceptions about how long someone will stay in a job and whether or not it is right to recruit someone who is overqualified.

The Business Case in Support of Those Overqualified

The economic situation in the UK means that there are many excellent candidates available in some professions. Whilst there was once an argument that if someone had been made redundant, they were probably bottom of the heap anyway, recession after recession has brought companies to make redundant those they would rather keep. These higher skilled workers now seek any job of any form to keep their families together and pay the mortgage. Inevitably therefore they may be applying for jobs into which they can move immediately and in which they can excel.

We have expressed in other articles that firms derive competitive advantage through their people, either in product differentiation or in cost reduction. High skill candidates can join and immediately contribute to reduce costs: they need little induction and little if any training before they pull their weight. In addition candidates with high competence can add to the firm’s ability to differentiate its products from its competitors. Experienced workers are better able to deal with customers and to apply their work/life experiences to the benefit of the firm.

Instead of allowing bias and perception to discriminate against such workers, firms need to look at the opportunity that the overqualified worker offers for the same wage bill. If firms can enhance their products through this greater experience or do things more effectively and more efficiently, surely this makes good business sense? The universal caveat of course is that hiring managers need to be sure that the overqualified candidate does indeed have valid reason for why they would want a job to which they can immediately over -contribute.

Objectivity in Recruitment: Being Clear about What Is Needed

A good strategy for avoiding any claim of discrimination is to be absolutely clear about exactly what is wanted. If this is specified and the firm has been transparent and if the search and selection process has been conducted in pursuit of these requirements, it is less likely that any discrimination claim could be substantiated. This good practice can be extended also to those who might be overqualified.

There are two key documents used to set out what the hiring manager needs. The first is a job description and this defines the key knowledge, skills and abilities of any candidate who would fill the role. These represent the tangible competencies. The second is a person specification which would set out the key behaviours and the less tangible attributes of a person. An example of this might be a call for the person to be a team player. The person specification sets out the competencies needed.

Matching RequirementsThe key thing is to be clear about what is wanted. Most managers would consider that they would indeed want an employee to stay in the role and perhaps instead of this being left tacit, the manager should express how long they would expect any one person to be in that job. This means that the candidates’ reasons for applying can be probed and can be confirmed to be in line with this period of service requirement. The person specification can also be used to define the minimum competencies and certain desirable competencies that would cause interviewers to look more favourably on those apparently overqualified.

Essential Interview Skills

So far we’ve discussed the possibility of bias on the part of an interviewer. We’ve looked at the business case for not allowing such bias and have suggested mechanisms through the job description and person specification for avoiding unexpressed preferences or prejudices. Given that the firm has thought through what it wants and has in some way trapped bias, good interview skills are then essential to be able to search for evidence to counter the manager’s worry that indeed an overqualified person will not stay in the job.

Possibly one of the most obvious questions to ask is ‘why do you want the job?’ Understanding the candidates’ circumstances is key. Interviewers must explore candidates’ motivation to determine if they can indeed derive competitive advantage through product differentiation and cost reduction from the person sitting in front of them. The interviewer must probe deep into every answer to try and understand rather than to simply tick the list of KSAs required. Interviewers must probe the competencies and the evidence to illustrate this why each competency will be met.

Hiring Managers Must Overcome Bias to Get Access to the Whole Labour Market

Over the years UK firms have developed policies and UK Government has passed legislation against labour market discrimination toward groups such as ethnic minorities and women. In some cases such policies are ‘empty shells’ with practice not fitting stated policy. In some cases such as in prejudice against older workers, discrimination flouts the law and discrimination cases can be brought before an Employment Tribunal. But there is nothing to protect someone who is an excellent candidate, can do the job and can add value instantly to the firm. If the hiring manager permits their bias to colour objectivity and if they lack the skills to probe and understand candidates’ circumstances, it’s very possible that the firm may turn away the best person for the job.

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