Hidden Biases Are Hurting Your Equitable Hiring Goals


More than ever, inclusive hiring is a priority for organizations – but it doesn’t always work as intended. Strong candidates are frequently overlooked and, if they are hired, they don’t stay at the organization long-term. Jeraul Mackey, Assistant Professor in Organizational Behaviour at the Desautels Faculty of Management, is an expert on equitable hiring practices. In a recent interview on the Delve podcast, he said recruiters often value some kinds of cultural capital over others, which can hurt efforts to hire more equitably.

“We hire folks not solely based on their qualifications to do the job, but we may hire them based on this cultural matching process,” said Mackey. “You play squash, I play squash, I like you because we can probably play squash together,” he added as an example. Squash, in this case, carries cultural capital for the interviewer.

There are many types of cultural capital. But, in a general sense, it refers to the implicit value of a person’s traits within an environment or cultural context. In Mackey’s example, “interest in playing squash” is the trait and “job interview” is the context, and the interviewer decides the value.

This is where inequity and bias can creep into the hiring process, explained Mackey. Not every recruiter and organization will value the same things, which can make the interview process a minefield for candidates – especially for those from different backgrounds or historically marginalized groups.

Candidates from diverse backgrounds may not carry the “correct” cultural signifiers, which often filters them out of the hiring process despite their otherwise strong credentials. An organization that disproportionately hires Harvard graduates is attributing more cultural capital to prospective employees from Harvard. But someone with plenty of work experience and transferrable skills may not have had the same opportunity to attend an Ivy-league school. This could put them at a disadvantage during the hiring process, as experiences outside the norm for an organization are dismissed in favour of candidates with more familiar educational backgrounds.

Writing the rule book

Offsetting these biases can help organizations improve their inclusive hiring practices, said Mackey. And it starts with clear communication of expectations.

“Then you can really level the playing field,” he said. “Not everyone has an understanding of what’s expected for them to navigate the hiring process.”

For example, recruiters often expect a thank-you note from candidates a short while after their interview. And they rarely communicate this expectation explicitly. Instead, the thank-you is a test of whether the candidate understands the implicit rules of job interviews. Unless you knew about this rule beforehand – for example, you didn’t grow up around white collar work – you would be at a disadvantage.

To offset this knowledge gap, Mackey says recruiters should clearly lay out the steps of the recruitment process, including whether a candidate should send a note. And they should set these expectations with all candidates, to avoid singling out any individual.

For more insights on creating equitable hiring practices, listen to Jeraul’s interview on the Delve podcast.

This article is written by Eric Dicaire.  This episode of the Delve podcast was hosted by Saku Mantere, and it was mixed and edited by Eric Dicaire and John Tracy. Original music by Saku Mantere.

Delve is the official thought leadership platform of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. Subscribe to the Delve podcast on all major podcast platforms, including Apple podcasts and Spotify, and follow Delve on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

Jeraul Mackey
Assistant Professor, Organizational Behaviour