The blunder of biases

October 2012 » Columns » SEARCH SAVVY
Jeremy Clarke

In more than 15 years of recruiting, I've realized that the values of a firm are made evident, to a significant extent, by the attributes they seek for, and ascribe worth to, in evaluating candidates and selecting employees. The virtue of a firm is directly proportionate to the attributes held most dear in prospective employees, assuming all other technical requirements for a given position are met.

It is a worthwhile examination of one's self to ask, "Do I find myself leaning significantly toward external preferences in my selection of a candidate?" A "yes" answer is, of course, an honest answer. The question then becomes, knowing that you and I are stricken with this predisposition for external biases, how do we mitigate it in our selection process? How do I set forth an objective, equitable selection process? It's not my intention to offer some corrective methodology (Do you really need another methodology?); let me just appeal to some basic human mutual sensibilities.

Inequity in selection is illegal – U.S. Labor Department guidelines render it illegal to discriminate against candidates/applicants on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, etc. Anyone who has been hiring for any length of time is familiar with this mandate. I'm not so naïve as to suggest that a legal proclamation is going to bring about hiring reform. If there is anything that characterizes the human experience, it is that you simply cannot legislate morality. So I'll make another appeal.

Inequity in selection is a strategic blunder – A predisposition toward/against external attributes will eventually negatively affect your firm's position and performance. I've worked with firms that have made statements like this regarding a search: "We'd like you to find us a principal – someone who is female, attractive, 30 to 40 years of age, and preferably not Caucasian." The reason for these preferences rests in the hope that these external characteristics will somehow bring added merit to the firm by virtue of the more pleasing or relevant "presence" the employee will bring to would-be clients.

But consider the ramifications of this: When a firm limits the scope of candidates to those possessing these non-essential characteristics, what they have in essence predetermined is that external merit weighs more heavily than professional/personal merit, and in doing so they radically diminish the available candidate pool to choose from, and consequently, forfeit candidates who may have brought the strongest professional/technical merit to the opportunity.

Take a moment to review one of your position descriptions. What are the key characteristics stipulated? Do they represent the long-term, strategic interests of your firm? Do they express your firm's conviction that competitive candidates should bring the necessary competencies that ultimately serve to progress your firm's position and performance in the marketplace? Of course they do! Then why would you preeminently screen and select candidates by way of subordinate and lesser external characteristics? Why aren't the key professional competencies of the position the preeminent focus of your search? You only limit your firm's performance potential when you introduce this kind of bias into your search.

There's nothing wrong with having diversity initiatives. In fact, in many cases (Federal contracts) the government mandates it. Further, there may be some practical interests associated with, for example, preferring a female over a male, or vice-versa. We're talking about something else entirely different here. A search begins, candidates begin hitting the radar, and are immediately viewed through the grid of some external bias and subsequently dismissed. In most cases, the firm is totally ignorant of the candidate's ability because they never even engaged the candidate in a discussion. Who suffers? You could argue that the candidate suffers, but if they're a strong candidate, a smarter competitor firm that does not share your biases will scoop them up. So, ultimately your firm suffers because you've deferred advantage to your competition by forfeiting the superior candidate – inequitable, immoral, and just plain dumb.

Commit to focusing on key competencies and your hiring accuracy, your reputation in the marketplace, and your conscience will all improve. Furthermore, you'll send a clear message to your employees concerning your firm's integrity. The values of a firm are made evident, to a significant extent, by the attributes they seek for, and ascribe worth to, in evaluating candidates and selecting employees.

Jeremy Clarke is director, Executive Search Consulting for ZweigWhite. He can be contacted at 479-582-5700 or at

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