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OPINION: Why blind CV screening and unconscious bias aren't the answer to diversity

Friday, Mar 3, 2017, by Sheryl Blythen

Simpson Grierson Human Resources Director Jo Copeland puts forward an argument for targeting conscious bias to increase diversity. For the past couple of years so much has been written about the virtues of unconscious bias training. It has been touted as the answer to increasing diversity by many well-respected thought leaders. So many large organisations have jumped on the bandwagon offering unconscious bias training, often at the instance of their HR team who have patted themselves on the back for delivering the latest programmes to their businesses. As a result, we have big organisations now conducting blind CV checks, removing names, schools, ethnicities, gender, suburbs and identifying information to create 'a level playing field'. All sounds new and innovative on the surface. But to me it makes no sense. If you want actual diversity, then closing your eyes and taking away all the markers of what might make a person different is shooting yourself in the foot. If what you really want is to increase, say, the ethnic diversity of the people in your team, then surely you want to be able to identify those applicants who are different from what you already have? If diversity is what you are after, then conscious rather than unconscious bias seems to me to be a far more effective and targeted strategy. For example, looking for those people whose names appear to be a bit different may sound a bit odd and simplistic. I'm not touting it as the answer. But it is one potential signal. As is where the person grew up, where they live and the stories they tell you about their upbringing and who they are in their applications. Those stories signal resilience, work ethic and values - things employers look out for. I can't think of anything worse than looking purely at grades and work history on a blind CV. That doesn't tell me what I really want to know. Grades are one of the least level playing fields there are and aren't a reliable predictor of work performance. Here's why: you cannot compare the grades of a kid who lives at home, fully supported by their family and who does not need to work to pay their rent or university fees with the grades of the Samoan kid I met the other day whose father was a taxi driver, his mother a cleaner and who had to work 30+ hours a week driving a taxi (studying in the car between jobs) to help put food on the table after their house was repossessed while he was studying for his degree. True story. I've heard so many more. Merit relative to opportunity is critical. Not everyone has the same opportunities in life. For the past four years we've been consciously trying to increase the diversity in the graduates we hire into our firm. Rather than narrowly defining merit as the 'best candidate', we refocused our efforts on seeking and developing the 'best team' and 'best business outcomes'. This means looking for people who would complement and grow the experience base of our current people. We managed to increase the diversity of our graduate hires from five per cent non-Pakeha to 65 per cent non-Pakeha in two short years. And we increased the number of Māori and Pasifika interviewees to 25 per cent in the same amount of time. The results speak for themselves. I haven't seen any of the results of blind CV screening process nor any longitudinal results of the impact of unconscious bias training that come anywhere close. Do you agree or disagree with Jo? We'd love to hear your feedback on this issue - email ceo@diversityworksnz.org.nz. Read some of the feedback here.

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