Blog Post
December 23, 2019

Five keys to avoiding discrimination in the hiring process

Here, recruiting and HR experts share their advice on eliminating discrimination during the hiring process, so you can build a truly diverse and inclusive workforce.


At this point, many employers have already heard about the benefits of diversity, particularly how it can drive innovation and even boost profits. But despite the increased attention to diversity and inclusion, many organizations are still struggling to hire and retain a truly diverse workforce. While there are a number of different contributing factors, one of the most important occurs right at the start: discrimination in the hiring process.

We reached out to a handful of recruiting and HR experts to get their best tips on how employers can nip bias in the bud — here’s the advice they shared.

1. Craft neutral job descriptions

Discrimination in the hiring process often begins before a candidate even applies. Many employers promote job postings that contain loaded language, even if they’re not aware of it. Taking the extra time to craft a sensitive job description will ensure that candidates from all backgrounds feel welcome to apply.

On a basic level, this includes things like not using gendered language (e.g. “the candidate will report to his manager”) in job descriptions. But even seemingly innocuous language like “rockstar” or “world-class” can affect who feels comfortable applying to these types of jobs — aggressive language, superlatives and non-traditional job titles all tend to favor men. If you’re unsure of whether or not the language you use in your job description is appropriate, use a tool like Textio tool or the free Gender Decoder.

Beyond gender discrimination, it’s also important to avoid age discrimination in your job descriptions.

“It is common for employers to run ads that have… a disparate impact on older workers. An example would be a job listing restricted to ‘recent grads’ or ‘Class of 2018 or 2019’” or “digital natives,” says David Miklas, an attorney who specialises in labour and employment law.

2. Embrace non-traditional resumes

Many of the resume components that employers view as a marker of high quality, like continuous employment or a degree from a prestigious university, can actually exclude otherwise qualified candidates from underrepresented backgrounds.

“When it comes to women, people of color and veterans, their resume may be harder to decode for those with a bias toward [the] status quo. For example, a woman may have taken time off due to maternity leave and may be returning to work. People of color may have attended top HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] and had leadership within top diverse organizations you are unfamiliar with. And, veterans may have resumes that reflect military-style language you are unable to decipher,” says Toni Howard Lowe, Career & Workforce Strategist and founder of The Corporate Tea. “To remove bias we must ensure that our talent leaders, recruiters and sourcers are well-versed experts in diverse language and exploring the differences in resumes. In addition, we should shift the focus from the resume highlights to skill set.”

After reviewing the candidate’s application yourself, you may even want to pass it along to the hiring manager as a blind application, in which you remove the name, graduation date and other personal information so that the hiring team is presented with the most objective information possible in order to remove discrimination in the hiring process.

3. Check your assumptions

None of us like to think that we buy into stereotypes, but unfortunately, it happens — often without our realizing it. In particular, bias often appears when candidates are older, says Ron Zambrano, Employment Litigation Chair at West Coast Trial Lawyers.

“It’s often assumed that older workers are going to demand a higher salary, or not be proficient with technology. So age discrimination in hiring happens a lot. You can tell it’s happening sometimes when you have a successful interview over the phone, but then the entire attitude changes when you come for the in-person interview,” Zambrano says.

Another particularly common bias is family status and motherhood, says Geneva Taylor, managing director of Tellis Executive Search.

“In one specific example, I was leading an interview team where we had a very qualified pregnant candidate and a male candidate that was just adequate. Of course, both could do the job, but it was determined that the pregnant female would be the best candidate except that one of the team members said, ‘What if she has to take off work because her child is sick?’” Taylor recounts. “Being a single mother myself, I was shocked that the comment was uttered out loud. I asked the team member what if the man had a sick child and had to stay home, would that be a problem? This quieted the room, but it also helped us make a decision to hire the very qualified pregnant female candidate. In a situation like this, having someone on your interview team who is brave enough to challenge bias without alienating the offender is extremely important.”

Another bias to watch out for is similarity bias — a predisposition to favor a certain candidate because you share something in common. This often results in “the halo effect,” which “typically takes place when a hiring manager adheres themselves to a certain candidate trait that will override all other important aspects,” says Gina Curtis, Trainer/Career Coach for Employment BOOST and Executive Recruiting Manager for JMJ Phillip Executive Search.

“Though the candidate could be severely unqualified for the position, the hiring manager could take to the fact that the candidate had graduated from the same school, leading to bias during the hiring process,” Curtis cautions. “In the same [respect], the horn effect has the direct opposite effect of the halo effect. Instead of a trait they like, hiring managers could find a distaste for the candidate due to a specific trait that works against their favor instead of for it.”

4. Improve your interviews

Because discrimination in the hiring process so often occurs during the interview process, it’s worth reexamining yours to ensure that it’s as impartial as possible. One of the best ways to increase the odds of a level playing field is by choosing a diverse group of interviewers.

“Be sure you have people on your hiring team you can trust to look at candidates in a non-discriminating manner when reviewing resumes and interviewing candidates. As an added measure, it could be helpful to have multiple interviewers sitting in on an interview or a multistep process with different staff to avoid using one person’s opinion,” Curtis says.

This will also help “ensure varying perspectives are represented in the room while evaluating candidates,” Lowe adds. “When calibrating collective feedback move away from language like ‘culture fit’ which often puts underrepresented groups at a disadvantage because they may not have the perceived pedigree, relationship proximity and experience — which is highly subjective and a flawed measurement.”

You might also want to scrutinise the questions you ask in an interview to see if they are biased toward any particular group. For example, “interviewers have a tendency to ask female candidates different questions than the men they interview,” says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide.

“A female client and I were chatting about her job search for a sales position on Wall Street, an industry that has been notoriously biased against qualified women. She was asked by a male interviewer how she gets new clients to like her,” Cohen shares. “There are a number of implications here, all offensive in one way or another: That Wall Street women who are successful are viewed as tough or difficult; that ‘like’ may be a euphemism for flirting; that Wall Street women need to rely on assets other than talent to get ahead. A male candidate would never be questioned about their likability. Instead, they would be grilled on their achievements and how they plan to replicate that success.”

5. Train your team

In an ideal world, everybody would take the time to educate themselves on how to avoid discrimination in the hiring process — but with hiring managers and recruiters so busy with their day-to-day tasks, there is a high chance that they won’t take the initiative themselves. That’s why passionate individuals educating others is so critical.

“A diversified hiring team that has gone through diversity training understands the importance of a diverse workplace and the impact it has on [the] company’s successes,” Curtis says.

Whether you hire an outside group to conduct trainings, create and share a presentation yourself or require hiring managers and recruiters to take an online course, make sure that your staff knows to focus on qualifications, not personal qualities. And remember — just because you’ve improved your hiring process doesn’t mean that your work is done when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

“Companies must also sustain this culture in good times and bad, to build and reinforce diversity throughout their businesses,” Taylor says.

Related: Six ways to support diversity and inclusion in the workplace 

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