To be or to have – that is the recruitment bias question

Scenario 1: a colleague needs you to write a letter of recommendation. What do you write about her?

Scenario 2: a colleague needs you to write a letter of recommendation. What do you write about him?

All other things being equal, would you expect to write the same letter?

You might not.

Researchers at the University of Arizona looked at 886 letters of recommendation for 235 male and 42 female applicants to chemistry and biochemistry positions. They found “more similarity in the letters written for male and female job candidates than differences”.

But, they also found that:

“recommenders used significantly more standout adjectives to describe male candidates as compared to female candidates, even though objective criteria showed no gender differences in qualifications”

This study may have been for the particular area of academic recruitment, but I feel the paper is worth reading for lessons to be learned wherever recruitment is taking place and at all stages in its process.

We all have biases. Being aware of how ours, and those of others, interplay allows us – as the researchers note – to police our behaviour.

In particular, when you write the job description, have you an image of the ideal candidate in mind – beyond the competencies, skills, knowledge and experience you require?

How does this work through to the job advert?

Are you looking for someone who is ‘passionate’ or ‘dynamic’, has ‘gusto’ or ‘high energy’ … ? How would you measure some of these aspects? If they are measurable, then a better wording might be available.

In general, it would seem that anything that goes “you will be [some characteristic]” is likely to have a subjective element. A phrase such as “you will have [skill/competency/experience of]” seems more objective.

Above all, this is why good equal opportunities monitoring is vital in any industry. If there is disproportionate representation of one or other characteristic does it suggest that your recruitment practices need attention?

As for me, I enjoy my freelance life based on a small island, several hundred miles from the coast of Spain!

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