A lack of qualified applicants is a reason commonly given by recruiters to explain the underrepresentation of women and minority groups in candidate pools, shortlists and hiring decisions. Yet, while employers blame a narrow talent pool, prospective employees with traditionally underrepresented backgrounds cite biased recruitment and selection processes as barriers to entry or deterrents.

What is Inclusive Recruitment?

Inclusive recruitment involves fair candidate attraction processes that are welcoming to diverse talent. Fair and welcoming candidate attraction means that individuals with diverse backgrounds are equally likely to be made aware of and apply for open roles compared with candidates with traditionally dominant backgrounds.

The Case For Inclusive Recruitment

Despite widespread acknowledgment of the business case for diversity, less than half of all employers have programs in place that specifically target candidates from a diverse range of backgrounds. Less than half of all employers request diverse shortlists from recruitment agencies(1). Inclusive recruitment does not imply recruiting someone simply based on a targeted diversity dimension—not only is that illegal in most markets, a person’s identity, per se, does not predict their future performance. However, given that diversity in a candidate pool can increase the overall quality of candidates in a pool, and because workgroup diversity can offer benefits beyond individual skills, employers should take active steps towards attracting diverse candidates and encouraging them to apply for open roles. Employers that succeed in achieving a diverse candidate pool are better positioned to hire top performers and to benefit from workforce diversity.

How a Diverse Candidate Pool Decreases Bias

Research shows that when a final candidate pool has one minority candidate, they have virtually nil chance of getting hired. However, if there are at least two female candidates in the final candidate pool, the odds of hiring a female candidate are 79 times greater, and if there are least two minority candidates in the final candidate pool, the odds of hiring a minority candidate are 194 times greater(2). The researchers found that the ‘two in the pool’ impact was greater for recruiters with higher measures of unconscious bias, suggesting that by changing the status quo, decision-makers were less likely to be influenced by their biases. Previous research showed that assessors justify or rationalise bias when there is an opportunity to do so. Assessors that score high in unconscious bias are more likely to redefine the criteria that constitute ‘merit’ for the role to fit the profile of the preferred candidate(3).

Risks to Inclusive Recruitment

  • Narrow candidate attraction efforts: For example, advertising for open roles in a limited number of sources or running graduate recruitment or internship programs that are restricted to a select group of tertiary institutions. 
  • Tap-on-the-shoulder appointments: Failing to advertise open roles allows for affinity bias—a preference for people similar to ourselves—which promotes hiring in one’s image. Also, diverse talent has less access to informal and political networks and fewer mentors and sponsors. 
  • Over-reliance on employee referrals when the workforce is homogenous: Individuals typically have homogeneous networks, but men might have even lower diversity in their networks than women. McKinsey’s research on diversity reports that when men are asked about their professional networks, 63% state it’s comprised of “more or all men” vs. 38% of women who state the same(4). Similarly, LinkedIn found that women are less likely to rely on their networks and more likely to search for jobs on third-party websites and online job boards(5).
  • Biased job descriptions: Job ads can imply a preference for certain characteristics (e.g., ‘dynamic’, ‘tech-savvy’ favour younger workers over mature workers; ‘ambitious’, ‘driven’, ‘superstar’ favour men over women; ‘active’, ‘fit’, ‘mobile’ may be biased against mature applicants or candidates with a disability.
  • Restrictive job descriptions: Job ads that require specific qualifications or years of experience can deter candidates with equivalent qualifications earned overseas or at alternative local institutions, candidates with equivalent capabilities or experience in a different industry, and candidates who have taken time out of the workforce for personal reasons. 
  • Weak employer brand for diversity and inclusion: For example, websites and recruitment materials that depict a homogenous workforce, failing to publish diversity data & policies, not participating in diversity-related awards, not stating the employer’s commitment to D&I, homogeneous leadership teams and negative reputation regarding workforce or customer inclusion.
  • Biased application processes: Examples include application processes that are heavily weighted to written submissions and do not offer accommodations to persons with, for example, vision or learning disorders or candidates with English as a second language. Also, unstructured interviews that favour an outgoing, confident personality-type and allow room for personal information or interpersonal style unrelated to job criteria to influence the assessor.
  • Applications that disclose identity information: For example, application processes that require candidates to submit photographs or disclose identity data that has been shown to be linked to employment discrimination (e.g., gender, age, academic qualifications, university, nationality, ethnicity, place of residence) can deter diverse candidates from applying.

Strategies for Inclusive Recruitment

Inclusive recruitment does not mean abandoning traditional recruitment channels that have been successful in sourcing top talent in the past but involves introducing new approaches to complement existing channels.

Writing inclusive job advertisements

  • Focus on job tasks: To avoid stereotypes, do not refer to the type of person you are seeking but to the job tasks. Do not include tasks or abilities that are not required for job performance.
  • Keep selection criteria to a minimum: Australian research indicates that advertisements with more than five selection criteria deter applicants, particularly females(6). Women tend to apply only when they think they meet 100% of the requirements, whereas men apply when they meet 60%(7).
  • Reduce focus on formal qualifications: While qualifications simplify the screening process, they do not predict job performance. Define the skills, experiences, and mindsets necessary to succeed rather than make assumptions based on qualifications. If you would prefer candidates to have knowledge of a certain skill, consider listing it as “desirable” rather than “essential”. When technical expertise is required, use ‘equivalent qualifications’ for professional designations. 
  • Use gender-neutral language: Don’t use gendered pronouns, be aware of terms that correlate with gender stereotypes, and avoid sports terminology. Conduct an audit of your job ads to identify gendered language that might discourage applications from women. Useful resources include guidelines published by WGEA(8), ILO(9), AHRC(10). Software like Textio or Gender Decoder removes gendered terms from job ads automatically. 
  • Remove ‘years of experience’: Use ‘proven experience’ or levels of skill or knowledge. A requirement for continuous experience could indirectly discriminate against candidates who have taken time out from work for various personal reasons.
  • Eliminate jargon: Ensure job ads can be understood by a wide audience, including candidates from outside the industry.
  • If necessary, describe physical requirements: Allow people with disabilities to consider whether a role is suitable for them. Don’t use terms like “physically” fit or “energetic”.
  • Include diversity as a job criterion: Where relevant, include diversity as job criteria — for example, language skills for customer-facing roles.
  • Highlight D&I awards, accreditations & memberships: For example, WGEA Employer of Choice Citation for Gender Equality, membership of Diversity Council of Australia.
  • Promote career development: Be explicit regarding formal career planning and development opportunities in job ads. High performing diverse talent wants to know they will be supported, and there are opportunities to progress. 
  • Offer flexibility in assessment schedules and location: Include potential assessment dates and offer flexibility in assessment timing and location. Allow candidates sufficient time to apply. 
  • Advertise flexible working arrangements: Highlight flexible working arrangements and other inclusive policies such as parental, carer, or religious leave.
  • Ensure accessibility: Ensure your website is accessible to persons with a disability. Highlight accessibility policies and offer reasonable adjustments for people with a disability. Provide contact details for applicants if they require information in an alternative format or other support. 
  • Include a diversity statement: Highlight that you welcome applications from diverse candidates in your job ads. 

Targeting diverse talent

  • Advertise broadly: Advertise all open roles. Include job ads in publications, networks or groups that cater to underrepresented groups. Advertise open roles across different social networks. Ensure that staff on parental, long-term sick leave, compassionate leave, and flexible working arrangements are informed.
  • Use targeted hiring campaigns: Social media not only helps you to build your employer brand but also allows you to identify and target diverse candidates through their membership of diversity orientated groups. 
  • Request diverse shortlists: Ask recruiters to actively seek diverse candidates, require recruiters to provide diverse shortlists, and pay higher commissions to recruiters for diverse hires.
  • Partner with diversity recruiters: Examples in Australia include Work180 for women candidates and Disability Employment Australia for candidates with a disability.
  • Access government programs: For example, the Queensland Government’s Youth Employment Program
  • Offer diverse internships: In Australia, Career Trackers partners with employers to offer internships to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Diversity internships can also be run in-house. Examples include EY’s LAUNCH program targeting ethnically diverse candidates with accounting or related business majors and Accenture’s Student Empowerment Program offered to female and minority students.
  • Senior diverse internships: Westpac’s Equilibrium program helped the bank to achieve its leadership gender targets by recruiting senior women from industries outside of banking and finance. Successful candidates undertook a 12 month, tailored development program to arm them with the skills and networks necessary for a successful career as a senior banking and finance leader.
  • Diversity referrals: Ask existing employees to refer women and minority candidates and offer increased referral bonuses for diverse hires. Leverage the diverse networks of members of employee resource groups by specifically engaging them in referral efforts. 
  • Expand graduate recruitment: Expand the tertiary colleges or universities you actively recruit from and specifically target educational institutions with diverse student bodies and alumni networks. 
  • Return-to-work programs: Support individuals re-entering the workforce after an extended time out for caring, health or other reasons.
  • Ongoing recruitment: Engage in ongoing recruitment and keep on file details of potential candidates from under-represented groups. 
  • External mentoring: Have senior staff act as mentors to women and minority groups outside of the organisation. Sponsor industry mentorship programs for diverse talent.
  • Sponsor women or minority targeted networking events or not-for-profit organisations that advocate for diverse talent. Host your own networking events for traditionally underrepresented groups.
  • Recruitment fairs: Participate in or host your own on-site or virtual recruitment fairs.
  • Build a future pipeline: Partner with schools to build interest in your industry and organisation through talks, workshops, office visits, work experience, and holiday placements. Leverage school partnerships to communicate career opportunities to students and develop future skills.

Strengthening employer brand

  • Publish diversity data: Advertise your commitment to D&I by publishing your diversity statement, policy, strategy, pay gap, targets, achievements, and employee resource groups on your website and social media sites. Studies show that around 30%-67% of candidates across the board look for this information and is a reputation concern for both men and women.
  • Participate in external awards and accreditation: For example, WGEA Employer of Choice Citation for Gender Equality, Australian Workplace Equality Index.
  • Showcase diverse talent: Ensure imagery in materials & the company’s website reflect the company’s workforce diversity. Be realistic; paint an honest picture of the organisation’s diversity. Include testimonials from women and minority employees. Showcase individuals with diverse backgrounds who have progressed at your organisation. Identify diverse role models to be the public face of your organisation. 
  • Build a diverse recruiting team: Ensure your hiring team reflects the diversity of your organisation.
  • Build a diverse leadership team: Make leadership diversity known publicly by showcasing on your website.
  • Foster an inclusive culture: Cultivate an inclusive culture (respect, belonging, empowerment, fair progression) so that the existing workforce act as brand ambassadors.
  • Adopt inclusive policies: For example, flexible dress codes that allow for religious attire or personal preferences in dress and appearance, flexible working arrangements that allow for different working schedules and offer employees opportunities to balance work-life, flexible leave policies that allow for diverse and changing needs (e.g., parental leave, carer leave, religious leave, domestic violence leave). 
  • Visibly advocate for the employment of diverse talent: Participate in or host events that highlight your commitment to diversity and inclusion (e.g. International Women’s Day, Wear it Purple, NAIDOC). Partner with advocacy and networking groups that support the employment, development, and leadership of diverse talent.
  • Align D&I and CSR efforts: Engage in corporate social responsibility activities that support your diversity and inclusion efforts.
  • Highlight a customer orientation to diversity: Tailor your products and services to meet the needs of diverse customers and share those stories.

Fair recruitment practices

  • Use structured application forms: Use structured application forms that tap specific skills and experience rather than invite CV’s where gender, background, and education are often visible and can influence assessment by activating unconscious stereotypes and other biases.
  • Provide application guides: Some job seekers do not know where to begin to sell their skills and potential effectively. Provide applicants with examples of expected response formats and content of application forms. Detail common reasons for unsuccessful applications to guide applicants in their submissions.
  • Adopt blind recruitment: Remove identifying personal information such as name, age, gender, and academic background from CVs. Using technology, such as Gap Jumpers, is an effective software tool for automating blind recruitment processes. Note, when under-represented groups make up a small proportion of applicants. CV de-identification should be implemented along with other interventions, such as targeted recruitment strategies. 
  • Accessible application processes: Offer and make accommodations for persons with a disability.
  • Use alternative application methods: Consider alternative approaches to written job applications when proficiency in written English is not a job criterion. Practical, hands-on approaches that engage the skills and competencies required in the role may widen the pool of talent employers can choose from. Approaches include gamification and work simulation-based exercises.
  • Seek candidate feedback: Conduct focus groups, and exit and stay interviews with successful and unsuccessful diverse candidates to understand the challenges they faced in recruitment as well as challenges that diverse talent face in their day-to-day work lives. Act on the information gathered to drive inclusive recruitment and improve the experience of diverse candidates and employees.
  • Track success: Example metrics include the percentage of diverse candidates at each recruiting stage, percentage of diverse candidates interviewed, percentage of job offers extended to diverse candidates, average diverse applicants’ satisfaction rate regarding recruitment and hiring. To encourage disclosure of identity information, candidates should be assured that the forms will be removed before applications are reviewed for shortlisting and that the data collected cannot be tracked to individual applicants.
  • Develop hiring to include capability: Assist recruiters and hiring managers in understanding their implicit assumptions and prejudgments with formal training that transfers skills for inclusive recruitment, including developing their ability to monitor and manage their own and other’s bias.

Final Points

Inclusive recruitment is difficult—no organisation can claim complete success. The challenges of inclusive recruitment, however, should not be a deterrent because efforts to increase the diversity of candidates improve organisations chances of hiring top talent and return a positive return on investment also through fostering diversity. Employers are encouraged to experiment with different solutions and share success stories and failures. Also, remember that inclusive recruitment is a collaboration between HR, marketing, communications, and management. It should not be left to HR alone.


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