Sifting: thoughts about diversity in Recruitment

Matt Dean




Last week we were asked by a (female) client: ‘why is it that when I and two of my (female) colleagues sift CVs we lose most of the diversity we wanted in the first round?’

Because I do most of our client work on recruiting, and because I’ve recently done a big CV sift myself, I thought I’d try and give some strong, practical guidance. 

Set out to interview a diverse group of candidates

The research is clear: a more diverse leadership group correlates to better financial performance.  So it’s a legitimate objective to set.  So set it – unapologetically. Then keep it front of mind and work towards it.  Make your target express and recognise its importance.  If you’re planning to interview six candidates, perhaps you need at least two women and one BAME candidate on the slate. Maybe you want to see someone who lacks the obvious background or experience for the role; that’s often a sneaky way of ensuring you can see minority candidates.   Because for many senior roles there’s very few minority people doing the job elsewhere or in the places our biases tell us we’ll find quality candidates.

Having this sort of target makes the sifting job more of an intellectual challenge and dare I say it, more fun. Keep reminding yourself that the target’s important.  You’ll probably see lots of really able white blokes. If you’ve only got four picks, you can’t feel sorry for the ones missing out.  They’ll be fine!  The restriction means that they’re going to have to be genuinely exceptional to get in.  At the same time, keep searching out the minority candidates, re-read their applications, see if they do actually meet your criteria.  Be curious. Be creative

Involve more than one of you in the sift, make someone specifically accountable

Collaboration and the discussion it involves naturally reduces the impact that our subconscious biases will play in any decision.  When we shortlisted recently, we made one of the sift team specifically responsible for ensuring a diverse slate. She asked questions and challenged the assertions we made about candidates being no brainers.  No brainer is, of course, a really interesting phrase: it’s someone who gets into the final line-up without any thought.  The point is, you do have to think about it, otherwise you’re just leaving it to your biases.  When you’ve got someone whose job is to ensure a diverse slate, you have to think about it, because you have discussions about it.

Start with clear criteria/requirements and sift against them

The start point with any recruitment is the same. What are the must have (and potentially the nice to have) criteria?   Take real care over this part. Ask anyone applying for the position briefly to identify exactly how they meet those criteria.  This way you won’t end up sifting CVs (which invites decisions influenced by bias). Their university or the firm where they were a partner in isn’t as relevant as how they meet your criteria. So read first how each candidates believes they measure up. 

You’ll probably worry that you’re missing strong candidates who simply send in their CV. Don’t! If they can’t invest ten or 15 minutes explaining how they meet your criteria, you don’t need them.

When I interview against a competence, I use a four point scale. I don’t like the fence sitting odd number scales allow.  So 1 – weak (but better than no points at all), 2 – tentative yes, 3 – yes they do (definitely) and 4 - this person absolutely meets the requirement and couldn’t have given a better answer.  

I tend to use the same scale to shortlist too.  With three ‘must have’ criteria and two ‘nice to haves’, I would probably score the must haves out of four and the nice to haves out of two, giving a maximum score of 16.

If you’re using a third party recruiter, tell them a diverse slate is a requirement

I was reminded how important this is during the recent exercise. Initially I failed to instruct the (very able) recruiter on the point. We used an online platform and the quality of the initial candidates was extraordinary.  But they were almost all white men.  I asked for (and received) a tranche of really interesting minority applicants.  Yes, some did not apparently meet some of the must have criteria, but that’s often how it’s going to be - the playing field is far from level.  

It may feel like you’re preferring minority candidates. Get over it! 

The end here (having a diverse slate) justifies the means.  Some blokes who could do the job well are going to get canned in order to ensure you get diversity.  You’re protected because you’re going to interview the best of them.  Hold this in your mind: a diverse slate means it’s easier to increase diversity, greater diversity is correlated to better financial performance.

Ignoring the human danger detector sounding in your head always feels wrong.  But the research says we need to do it; we need not to pick the safe, obvious choices.  So shortlist the very best majority candidates and the very best minority candidates.

Then all you’ve got to do is proper competency based interviewing. Overcoming your biases when you’ve got the person in front of you is even more difficult. Let me know if you want that blog.

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