Written by:
Peter Thornton MA

The existence, scale, and handling of discrimination has been highlighted by the recent year’s historically pivotal social movements. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the challenging of disparities between different groups of people have become widespread globally, not to mention that the UK this year marked 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Much has changed, but much work is still to be done to level the playing field. Workplace discrimination is no exception to these systematic forces, whether this is concerning the well documented wage gap between men and women, or the low acceptance rate onto undergraduate or PhD courses of BAME applicants. In this article, we are going to explain the challenges faced by applicants and employers in the hiring process in light of existing social structures, and how employers can take appropriate measures to avoid discrimination when hiring.

Forms of Discrimination in the Hiring Process

Before we delve into the ways that companies reduce the risk of discrimination entering the hiring process, it is important to bring focus to this article, which will refer largely to three non-exhaustive ways that someone can be discriminated against in the hiring process. It will also be important, for the purpose of this article to understand the aspect of the hiring process that are vulnerable to letting through existing discriminatory attitudes, or behaviours.

  • Physical and Mental Disability Discrimination. As with many areas of society that are shaped around a set of norms of mental and physical well-being, so too can the hiring process. This means that a candidate’s mental or physical well-being and individual circumstances could be overlooked when it comes to assessing for certain abilities, such as numerical, or verbal ability, or in a candidate’s behavioural competence in an interview. This means that factors extraneous to those that make the individual good at their job impact on their ability to take a test as compared to someone who does not consider themselves to have a physical or mental disability.
  • Discrimination based on one’s actual (self-identified) or perceived gender. Someone’s actual gender has been shown to correlate with differences in technical ability. For example, men tend to do better in numerical reasoning tests than women, but woman do better than men in verbal reasoning. One’s perceived gender, or the gender identity someone is deemed to be by others to have, could affect how they are perceived in CVs (e.g., name), interviews (bodily markers) etc. with the existence of unconscious or explicit biases.
  • Discrimination based on one’s actual or perceived race. Like gender-based discrimination, there are differences in performance on technical tests depending on one’s actual race (importantly, this is correlational and so causation cannot be inferred). One’s perceived race, such as your name in a CV, or bodily markers in an interview, could elicit pre-existing biases. For example, an interviewer who has discriminatory attitudes may manifest these by judging a Caucasian person to be more professional sounding than a person of colour despite providing the same interview response.

With these in mind, we now move onto identifying the reasons why processes should be put into place to avoid forms of discrimination. Then, we’ll cover three processes that exist and are used by employers actively to avoid these forms of discrimination, of which you can look out for in an application process.

What are the advantages of avoiding discrimination?

There are two important beneficiaries of avoiding the existence of discrimination in the job application process.

  1. The first of these, of course, are the disadvantaged or under-represented applicants to the roles. There are measures in place that reduce the strength of the forces of systematic and/or individual discriminatory beliefs. These measures work to give all a fair and true test of their suitability to the role, where otherwise factors beyond their control may be used for or against them.
  2. The second advantage of reducing discrimination is for the employer. This benefit is broad and can be felt in many ways. For example, through these additional steps, the employer can work more effectively towards diversifying their work force as they reduce the chances of eliminating candidates in a discriminatory fashion. Another example of a benefit to the employer is that they can be more confident that they take on the best candidate for the job.

What do employers put in place to mitigate risk of Discrimination?

We now move onto what employers can and should do within the hiring process to reduce the risk of discrimination. It is important to mention that while these measures often do decrease the chances of discrimination seeping into the process, they are independent factors, so do not alone determine the success in avoiding discrimination – nor indeed are they jointly sufficient for eradicating discrimination. Nonetheless, here are three ways that many employers explicitly attempt to avoid discrimination.

  1. Safe measures of success in Online Assessments.

Assessments can roughly be separated into three different categories, depending on what they aim to discover about the candidate who takes them. Some assessments assess a candidate’s technical ability, the ability to deal with and interpret information and draw conclusions. These include Numerical and Verbal Reasoning Tests. Other assessments unveil insights as to the personality or preferences of a candidate, for instance the Work Personality Questionnaire. Finally, some assessments aim to discover one’s behavioural competence, such as a Situational Judgement Test.

With this background in mind, it can be appreciated that each of these is equally important as to someone’s suitability to the role and company. However, certain categories can have vulnerabilities that if not addressed could increase the chances of discrimination being expressed.

One example of such a vulnerability is technical ability assessments. Employers using assessments that aim to measure your ability, whether that be numerical or verbal for example, must be wise to existing research that exists. Research has shown that there are existing group differences between groups outside of the 30th percentile. However, no one demographic dominates the lower end of the normal distribution curve. In other words, no one group performs better in technical ability until after the 30th percentile. Research suggests that there are groups/demographics that tend to achieve higher scores as compared to the norm group on certain tests. This means that some people’s actual race and/or gender correlates with performance. For example, research has indicated that women outperform men on their verbal reasoning ability (e.g., Izzaty & Setiawati, 2019). To ensure that such group differences do not impact performance, the cut off for progression in the application process should as industry standard be set this low at around the 30th percentile. Companies can then morally and legally defend their recruitment process as attempting to avoid the discrimination that we see in different groups.

Another example of a potential vulnerability for exposing the process to discrimination is in interviews which largely aim to find out about one’s behavioural competence. If done in the incorrect way, with insufficient or misguided training, the chances of discrimination can increase. Structured Interviews and training can be used to reduce the impact of pre-existing discriminatory attitudes of the interviewer. One example of an existing bias that may exist is identifying with a candidate, whether intentionally or not, more if they perceive a resemblance between themselves and the interviewee. Structured Interviews can ensure that the biases of the interviewer do not seep into the decision-making response and guide the interview. Instead, the performance is based solely on the responses given for the same questions, like-for-like.

  1. Reasonable Adjustments

If you consider yourself to have a disability, employers should have measures in place that take this into account. This is because those with issues of accessibility, whether that be to do with vision, mental health, mobility, learning, may well be equally suitable for the role. Disability is not a reflection on the individual’s ability to perform on the job, rather a reflection of society’s structured ability to cater for everyone who exists outside of widely used ‘norms about how people can typically physically function’ (Jenkins & Webster, 2020). Some examples of measures that can be put into place to improve accessibility include subtitles, audio reading, assessment zoom functionality, and additional time. Each of these take steps to ensure that people have a fair chance of displaying their technical talent, behavioural competency or personality. With respect to additional time, even if this is not made explicit, you are well within your rights to contact the employer you are applying to regarding additional time if you consider yourself to require this. Other accessibility features may vary depending on the company and/or assessments required. However, if they do exist, it is best practice to make this explicit in communications with applicants – so watch out for these.

  1. Practice

Familiarity with assessments can be a large factor in one’s performance in employer assessments. Those who are more familiar with the type of questions they may be asked, whether it is a numerical reasoning test, or a situational judgement test for example, are more likely to perform closer to their true ability. It is important to stress that practice in not designed to make you better as such at certain things, e.g., numerical ability, and certainly not personality (this is largely considered rigid in nature). This is especially the case here where employers are looking for an applicant’s true ability rather than learning ability. Rather, practice helps candidates get familiar with the environment. They ease stress, nervousness, and other confounding variables that can affect one’s performance.

However, not everyone prior to their job application is aware nor able to, for whatever reason, practice assessments and gain this much needed familiarity. Encouragement and/or practice assessments prior to the “real thing” could be a sign that the employer acknowledges group differences as well as research around the importance of familiarity (Bradley et al., 2019). People who are familiar are significantly more likely to perform closer to their true score, free from extraneous factors. Practice can then be a step taken to eliminate risk of employers receiving assessments that do not reflect ability, rather a show of candidate’s individual circumstance.

Closing Remarks

Having now covered the realities of discrimination, the importance of combatting discrimination, and how it is presently combatted in the hiring process, I’d like to conclude by stressing the importance for employers and candidate’s alike of recognising and acting on existing discrimination. Discrimination should not be ignored, disregarded, overlooked, nor understated. While measures have been put in place, such as those discussed above that you can look out for, this is a space we should and are continually striving to perfect. Additionally, as assessments develop whether that be in the game-assessment arena, or more interactive assessments, further discussions will need to be had around the topic of discrimination and further measures that can be put into place.