Narrow-minded assumptions could lead to loss of best candidates

by Miriam Bell27 Sep 2012

Organisations could be losing out on the best candidates for jobs because of unfair biases and narrow-minded assumptions made by recruiters – judging by the results of a new survey.

Conducted by global recruitment software producer Bullhorn, the survey found that recruiters regarded candidates’ biggest black marks as:


  • 78% - having been fired
  • 39% - “job-hopping” – moving from job to job
  • 31% - being out of work for more than a year
  • 31% - having a skill set that was no longer in demand
  • 28% - having gaps in employment history
  • 26% - being out of touch with the modern workplace and technology

While it was perhaps not surprising that a candidate who had been fired in the past might set off alarm bells for recruiters, some of the candidate “black marks” noted by recruiters were based around unfair biases and pre-assumptions.

For example: Long-term unemployment could lead to a candidate being considered unemployable, Art Papas from Bullhorn said. “Recruiters said it’s easier for them to place someone with a (misdemeanour) criminal record in a new job than it is to place someone who has been unemployed for two years.”

And another example: Workplace Info this week reported that the first national survey of the employment barriers faced by older workers found that 85% of those surveyed believed there was age discrimination in recruitment.

The Bullhorn survey also backed this finding up – just 1% of recruiters said candidates in their 50s were the easiest age group to place, while 0% responded favourably for the 60+ age group.

In a recent, widely-published opinion piece on how bias could impact on the bottom line, Dr Katie Spearritt, from Diversity Partners, wrote that subtle, taken-for-granted biases and assumptions about characteristics like gender, race and age were hard to change. “Our unconscious associations and biases affect our actions, in subtle and unsubtle ways, and these play out at work.”

Quoting UK business psychology Professor Binna Kandolaas, she wrote that we are all part of the problem, because we are all biased. “We tend to make automatic assumptions based on sex, race and age, drawn from our experiences and backgrounds, and these influence our decision making, particularly whom we recruit and promote. Organisations have collective biases, too. Becoming aware of these biases as individuals and organisations is the first step to creating more inclusive workplaces.”

So, recruiters who make biased assumptions about candidates based on their age or a history of unemployment could actually be impeding an organisation’s efforts to recruit the best candidate for the job.

Boston University has published a useful list of suggestions to help organisations “overcome the influence of unconscious biases and assumptions” during the recruitment process:


  • Learn about, and discuss, research on biases and assumptions – and consciously strive to minimise their influence on the evaluation of candidates.
  • Develop strict criteria for evaluating and interviewing candidates and apply them consistently to all applicants.
  • Spend sufficient time (15–20 minutes) evaluating each applicant.
  • Evaluate each candidate’s entire application and don’t depend too heavily on just one element of the application.
  • Be able to defend every decision made when rejecting or retaining a candidate.
  • Periodically evaluate all decisions and consider whether qualified women and underrepresented minorities are included. If not, consider whether evaluation biases and assumptions are influencing your decisions.


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