Unconscious bias and short-termism are costing our industry’s recruitment process

PHD's Stephanie Douglas-Neal argues that media agencies are being let down by unconscious bias and short-term thinking when it comes to hiring the next wave of talent.

A vast body of research demonstrates that all hiring processes are biased and unfair. Unconscious ageism, sexism, and racism all play a role in whom we hire.

Given the core of our business is understanding people and audiences, and how to better engage with them, a representative workforce is key. Therefore, we need to take practical steps as an industry to ensure we address barriers within our recruitment processes if we want to create the optimal talent pool within our organisations.

Only by removing gender, age, cultural and cognitive diversity discrimination, can we ensure quality output as an agency.

The expert view

A recent Harvard Business School report demonstrates that unconscious biases have a negative effect on our judgment, causing us to make sub-optimal decisions favouring one group of people over others. If these biases are left unchecked in the recruitment process, they can shape a company or even industry norms.

The local industry implications

Recently catching up with an external recruiter, I was shocked to discover that while half of all applicants for media roles are from South-East Asia, an overwhelming majority of hiring managers cite a “lack of sophistication in their marketplace” or a “need for local market experience” as reasons to not even interview these candidates.

This occurs even though all applicants had already been pre-screened by recruiters.

I understand that in a lean workforce, we all want someone to hit the ground running, but the Australian marketing landscape isn’t that complicated or sophisticated in truth. The implications of this practice, along with the others that arise from unconscious biases, include:

Unfilled roles

  • Resultant turnover – the frequency with which I hear ‘I haven’t had a manager for six months’ as the reason for people looking for work is very concerning
  • Cost of churn
  • Lack of diversity

So, what are the steps you can take as a hiring manager to reduce these unconscious biases? Where do you start? If you’re an HR manager or recruiter, how do you influence this within your organisation?

Be open to your own unconscious bias

Everyone has some, be open to and conscious of yours, in order to make efforts to overcome them.

‘Blindfold’ resume review

Provide hiring managers with resumes stripped of demographic information, focus on only the candidate’s specific qualifications and skills, and facilitate a scenario where they can make judgment calls without their unconscious biases coming into play.

Test their skill level

Give a quick-work sample test that is relevant to the daily tasks the candidate will be expected to undertake. Those candidates who pass, get an interview.

Better structure and standardise interviews

Unstructured interviews – those without consistent and defined questions, whereby a candidate’s suitability is supposed to somehow reveal itself through the conversation – are unreliable at predicting candidate success.

A more standardised approach focuses the conversation on the factors that have a direct impact on job performance. This also allows for the development of a scorecard that ranks candidates on a pre-determined scale. Not only does this help to provide candidates with more specific feedback, but it helps your hiring managers in the process.

Train your hiring managers

The average age in our industry (for media agencies) is 28. We cannot expect junior managers to just jump into a room and wing it successfully.

Train your hiring managers on your recruitment process. Too often the HR function is a facilitator of the process, rather than leading and ensuring quality control and consistency. In an industry where good talent is hard to find, having good candidates with the desired experience is crucial for the business.

Likeability isn’t enough justification for candidate selection

We are a people-based industry and likeability (both internally, with colleagues, and externally, with clients and partners) is important. There is no reason that this can’t be built into your scorecard as one of the skills/criteria we rate candidates on. It cannot become a non-specific, catch-all however.

Hopefully, by keeping some of these simple recruitment steps in mind, hiring managers and businesses can better understand and take control of their own unconscious biases. This will ultimately allow them to source a richer, more consumer-representative workforce necessary to deliver clients solutions that better engage their consumers.

Stephanie Douglas-Neal is executive director and head of HR at PHD.


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