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Recruitment & Social Mobility

Are your recruitment processes unintentionally biased?

by Patrick Lockhart

Lead Consultant – Assessment Consulting 21st Sep 2016

The principle behind best practice recruitment is that no matter what their background, the best person for the job is the one who is hired. This is also the principle behind social mobility. However, in recent research Abigail McKnight of the London School of Economics has found that children from high income backgrounds who show signs of low academic ability at age 5 are still 35% more likely to be high earners as adults than children from poorer families who have early high academic ability.

This is called the ‘glass floor’ problem as research shows better-off, middle-class parents are able to protect their children from downward social mobility – which conversely means talented individuals from lower social backgrounds are denied these job opportunities.   It seems we don’t live in a meritocracy: in the UK the social positions we are born into still has huge influence over the trajectory of our careers.

From a recruitment perspective this isn’t intentional practice by most firms: most do want to find and recruit the best person for the job. However, most organisations use a number of recruitment practices which allow bias to creep into practices, or that create arbitrary barriers to talented candidates. If this is an area you want to review in your organisation here are some key areas to consider:

1 | Branding and Attraction
Do you know what the perception of your organisation is in the market? What channels do you use to attract applications from people with different backgrounds? What can you do to tell authentic stories from your workforce from individuals who are more outlier than traditional in their social background? Inspiring applicants from a range of social backgrounds is the first key to establishing a wider pool of more talented candidates.

2 | Carefully consider the ‘essential’ criteria that you use to initially screen candidates
For example, many organisations ask that candidates achieve a minimum of a 2.1 in a degree subject to progress an application. However, research has found that academic grades are not very predictive of success in job roles. So if you are recruiting for any job role carefully consider what criteria you use to screen candidates. Using online assessments that have been designed to assess candidates against the requirements of the job is a much more fair way of evaluating candidates’ fit for the role. At Alexander Mann Solutions we have recently been working with an assessment company called SOVA, who ‘blend’ personality, ability and situational questions together into one more holistic assessment. This approach minimises unfair screening effects which organisations frequently experience where they only use verbal or numerical reasoning assessments to screen.

If academic criteria are important to the role, you may find implementing ‘contextual’ recruitment technology useful. Academic results are not necessarily all equal - achieving a good result while attending a lower performing school is arguably a more impressive than achieving a good result while attending a high performing school. Software is now available to help organisations contextualise the relative achievements of applicants so their achievements can be compared on a more level playing field. It is also possible to hide or remove candidate information from applications that may bias those who screen applications. Changing the screening processes you use will help ensure candidates from different backgrounds aren’t declined at the very first hurdle.   

3 | Define and start measuring social mobility in your organisation
Currently most organisations do not measure socio-economic background as part of their equal opportunities monitoring. Therefore they have no insight into the social mobility of their applicant pool, and if something isn’t measured, it is difficult to know what to improve!

4 | Audit your assessment process from beginning to end
For example, using purely competency based assessment at apprentice or graduate level in particular can unfairly advantage candidates who have been coached in how to complete competency based processes by university careers services. For Early in Career recruitment we can support you to create assessment criteria that provide insight into candidate potential for success rather than asking interview questions solely on examples of past behaviour. Within an audit you should also consider where unconscious bias could creep into your recruitment process. One criterion that is often measured in recruitment either formally or informally is “communication skills” – and interviewers can be biased by anything from a weak handshake to a regional accent. Ensuring assessors are self-aware of their biases, and having frameworks in place to give assessors objective criteria to evaluate candidates against are important here.


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