Issues around bias have always been a challenge when it comes to recruitment. Whether it’s about people’s “foreign-sounding” names, gender concerns or a person’s appearance, prejudice inevitably creeps in.
There can even be preconceptions around a person’s schooling, which is why Deloitte UK has decided to try “contextualized” recruitment. This involves recruiters being given a range of data on candidates’ economic background and personal circumstances so they can make more informed choices by considering the context in which academic achievements are achieved.
The move is part of a “Social Mobility Week” by Deloitte whereby the firm hopes to access a more diverse pool of talent while improving social mobility by increasing opportunity for, and investing in, the development and training of young people.
Improving social mobility is one of the U.K.’s biggest challenges, said David Sproul, senior partner and chief executive of Deloitte UK.
“There is also a clear business imperative to get this right. In order to provide the best possible service and make an impact with our clients, we need to hire people who think and innovate differently, come from a variety of backgrounds and bring a range of perspectives and experience into the firm. We truly value this difference,” he said.
“Our response to this challenge reflects the value we place in the U.K.’s education system and the hard work that young people and teachers put in to achieve good exam results. Contextualization allows us to recognize these important qualifications for young people, whilst also ensuring that, for example, 3Bs at A level in a school where the average student achieves 3Ds is identified as exceptional performance.”
This approach makes perfectly good sense, particularly in the U.K. where classism and impediments to social mobility are massive — much greater than they are in Canada, according to Wendy Cukier, vice-president of research and innovation, and founder of the Diversity Institute, at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“What this is adding is an effort to compensate in places… where the social structure is very rigid and if you went to Oxford or Cambridge (universities), the opportunities that are there for you are massively better than if you graduated from London Polytechnic, regardless of your ability,” she said. “It seems to me that what this particular service is focused on is to try to address those invisible barriers that are associated with your family background and status.”
How it works
Essentially, it’s a plug-in that connects to the applicant tracking system, said Yasmina Kone, sales and marketing co-ordinator at Rare in London, U.K., the diversity recruitment firm working with Deloitte.
“A candidate will fill in a form as they usually would but with these extra questions and with this extra data capture. Then, once they hit submit, the specific questions that are social mobility metrics for us will get sent to… our algorithm place.”
This means Deloitte then has the information in its applicant tracking system, said Kone, “so when they look through all of their candidates, they can see at a glance where on a scale of disadvantage one might be.”
“They’re able to see, alongside the school that they went to, how that school was performing, so what percentile that school was in, and that just allows you to understand the grades a little better, so the candidate who got A, B, B from an underperforming school will look more impressive than they would otherwise.”
The system is not meant to disadvantage anyone, said Kone.
“The point is just to equal the playing field a little, so people who didn’t go to good schools will be considered if they have still achieved strong academics.”
The idea of anonymizing CVs to combat unconscious bias has been around for awhile and is hugely important in levelling the playing field, said Cukier.
“But, more important, it’s critical for developing the pool of applicants in the first place, and reaching further upstream to make sure that youth growing up in more marginalized environments understand the range of opportunities that are available to them and are equipped to be successful, because very often it has nothing to do with intelligence or hard work, and it has everything to do with understanding what opportunities exist and being able to navigate those unspoken rules.”
Systemic discrimination is much more difficult to prove than overt discrimination and, unfortunately, systemic discrimination is much more prevalent, she said.
“And we know from the research that talks about the experiences of racialized people in the workplace and perceptions of unfairness, and the unintended, that very real tendency of people to prefer people who are like them, and to surround themselves with people who are like them… so more likely to pick ‘someone from my educational background, someone who went to my school, someone who shares the same interests as I do,’ and so on. And the unintended consequence of that is often to exclude people who are equally well-qualified and also to deny them access to many of the supports that they need in order to make them successful.”
The system is meant to combat prejudice but it’s also about boosting diversity, said Kone.
“The contextualized recruitment system allows you hopefully to have more diverse hires because it’s showing you everyone and their merits in their context,” she said.
“And it might even be down to whether or not someone has relevant work experience and they weren’t able to get work experience… because they were spending their Saturdays working in a retail job so they could make some money.”
In looking at the achievements of a student who graduated from Ryerson while carrying a 20-hour-a-week job as the child of a taxi driver, it would be important to contextualize that in contrast to the child of a judge who went to one of the Ivy League institutions and had all his expenses paid for, said Cukier.
“Frankly… individuals who have had to struggle in order to achieve a university education, have had to balance earning an income to support their family and often other kinds of challenges, have more often more strength of character, resilience and tenacity than individuals who have had everything handed to them.”
And it’s not just about focusing on the hiring process but focusing on building the applicant pool, said Cukier, “and equipping young people with the knowledge and skills they need to make good choices and also to succeed in an interview.”
Looking ahead, Kone said there has been quite a lot of interest from American firms about the system, and Rare is doing research looking into it. But, at the moment, the way the algorithm works is very U.K.-specific, with the focus on schools there, she said.
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