Our talent management is not the meritocracy we think it is

By Inge Woudstra

In talent management, we like to believe that our processes are fair and our workplaces are a meritocracy. Yet in reality, there is ample space for subjectivity and therefore the potential for (unconscious) bias to play a part in who gets invited, hired, promoted, or simply preferred for any career-enhancing opportunity.

To ensure that opportunities are truly fair for all, it is crucial to strive for transparency and objectivity wherever possible. Here’s what this means in practice:

Inclusive Attraction
If we do what we have always done, we end up hiring people who are just like those we already have in our team. Instead, we need to broaden our channels of outreach, ensuring that we connect with a wide range of target groups.  Looking at a wider range of universities, for instance, or at compatible yet slightly different industries, or different geographic areas.

Next, we need to review the wording, images and job descriptions we use, asking ourselves how we can make them more appealing to a more diverse range of target groups.  Are the types of people we would like to attract represented in our imagery?  Is the language we use relatable to them?

By taking just these steps we immediately become more inclusive in our attraction and more able to reach previously untapped talent pools.

Once we have successfully attracted potential candidates with a more diverse range of backgrounds or demographics, we ought to ensure that our selection process is fair and transparent, offering everyone an equal chance at securing a position. This includes:

  • Providing clear information about the selection process with every candidate so there’s no benefit to those with inside information from a friend or a relative who works there, for instance
  • Giving people resources for preparation, so they all have the same opportunity to prepare
  • Providing every candidate with opportunities to get to know the organisation and the role; this might include open days or even just inviting people to get in touch with any questions. This lowers the barriers for those who aren’t sure about the position yet, for instance young women looking at a role in engineering or technology, or a position of seniority that seems out of reach for someone who would be perfectly capable.

For interviews, interviewers need to agree selection criteria in advance and communicate those to candidates. Assessors should expect to provide evidence for their scores, thus diminishing the impact of any lurking biases. Ideally, the interview panel itself will be as diverse as the candidates,  offering candidates the opportunity to meet people they can relate to.

Beyond  interviews, it can be very  helpful to add assessments that more objectively measure learning potential, skills and capabilities. These measures help us to be more meritocratic in our evaluations, comparing apples to apples.

Learning and Development
Unconscious bias in managers and recruiters means that underrepresented groups are often offered fewer opportunities for training and development.  Opportunities like presenting to a more senior group, speaking at an event or attending a more exclusive training course, to name but a few.  To counteract this, we need to equip leaders with the tools and knowledge to mitigate bias. By providing comprehensive training to managers on how to address unconscious bias in work allocation, review processes, development initiatives and assessments, we can pave the way for a more inclusive and supportive environment.  One example of this is to require managers to list all the opportunities for development available to their teams – from the formal to the informal – and pay attention to who gets these opportunities and, more importantly, who doesn’t.

At first glance, progression within organisations may appear to be based on objective performance reviews. Yet upon closer examination, we often find that these reviews are influenced by subjective viewpoints.  Progression opportunities tend to favour those who have a greater understanding of the “hidden rules”, excel in networking, or are good at sharing their achievements.

Moreover, research has found that, when comparing written reviews of employees, those from underrepresented groups tend to receive more mentions of mistakes and commentary around their personality rather than their skills.  Women, for instance, have been found to be judged on the basis of their experience (or lack thereof), whereas men are more generally judged based on what is perceived as their potential.  A simple fix to this is to provide a format or template for written review assessments that guide the reviewer to look at the same criteria for all.

Identifying these inequities makes it easier to then address them, by developing more objective progression processes.  Starting with (as referenced above) structured interviews, where candidates are evaluated against pre-defined criteria, requiring evidence for the scores given; requiring that shortlists for roles are balanced and that job descriptions and requirements focus on measurable skills and competencies, eliminating factors such as length of service or specific experience.

In addition to a more objective process, a more transparent process can also contribute to creating a more level playing field. We can achieve this by broadcasting roles far and wide, and by being clear about the process steps and salary expectations. In addition, transparency about criteria for promotion, showcasing a variety of career pathways and increased visibility of a wider range of role models are all ways to bring more equity into progression processes.

Evidence shows – as we have also experienced with  our own clients – that implementing some of these changes has made a remarkable difference to bringing greater fairness and objectivity to talent management.  After all, if we believe our work is a meritocracy, then it only makes sense to identify these inequities so that we can eliminate them.