Diversity 2.0: why next-generation recruitment tools alone won’t fix hiring bias

From company boardrooms to the houses of Parliament, the UK has a diversity problem.

There are more FTSE 100 CEOs named Steve than there are minortised ethnic CEOs. Less than a quarter of the UK cabinet are women.

Despite some progress in recent years, people from minoritised backgrounds – disabled people, LGBTQIA+ people and anyone with affinities to protected characteristics – are all under-represented in the rooms where decisions are being made. And this lack of representation is reflected across the UK’s top organisations, including at Nesta.

Increasing diversity in organisations is an absolute necessity – not only for the sake of fairness, but also because representation benefits everyone. For companies, increased diversity is linked to higher revenue, improved company culture and greater innovation.

Amidst the drive to improve diversity in UK organisations, one approach is growing in popularity: diversity-focussed recruitment tools.

These tools range from targeted job boards through to anonymised job application platforms. And they form a vital part of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion journey; but when used in isolation, they do not go far enough to generate real change.

At Nesta, we have been aware of the inequities plaguing traditional hiring processes, and have been trying for years to do better. We’ve used many different technologies, tools and platforms designed to reach a diverse group of talent and reduce the impact of unconscious biases.

We ran our ads through software to remove gendered language and posted them on diversity job boards, and we were early investors in and adopters of fairer recruitment platforms. But despite these attempts, our workforce remains far too homogenous. So we decided to dig deeper.

We analysed our recruitment process and found that we still had a very low number of applicants from diversity job boards – just 0.5%. Minoritised candidates that did apply were much more likely to be sifted out even at the anonymised application stage; and of those applicants that did make it through to interview, those with visually identifiable protected characteristics (age, ethnicity etc.) were statistically less likely to be offered the job.

The key takeaway? Anonymity does not guarantee equity.

It’s clear that recruitment tools alone cannot fix hiring bias, so what can?

One of the first things organisations need to do is to try and reach people where they are. It’s not enough to just post on diversity boards; employers also need to try targeted recruitment. That could mean partnering with other companies, going out to diverse universities to try and attract candidates, or simply ensuring the organisation looks like a place where members of underrepresented groups would want to work.

Another mistake organisations need to avoid making is conflating experience with suitability. If employers truly want to change the makeup of their staff, then they need to stop hiring people based purely on experience. Instead, hiring processes should focus on skills rather than background to avoid the cycle of homogeneity.

But say you do everything right in the early stages and you have a wonderfully diverse pool of applicants to choose from for your next role. None of that matters if you still have bias at the interview stage. So what can you do?

If organisations want to cut bias out at the interview stage, they should try conducting interviews with cameras off where possible. People are influenced by visual cues they may not even be aware of – but the impacts of subconscious bias can be devastating for candidates and organisations.

Turning cameras off doesn’t eliminate prejudice, of course. Judgements can still be made, consciously or subconsciously, about someone based on their accent or manner of speaking. That’s why it’s also necessary to tackle bias as a group – it’s not easy, but it really does help to have honest conversations about the biases you might have for and against a candidate before and after the interview.

Finally, nothing changes until someone is held accountable. At Nesta, holding ourselves accountable to our EDI goals has forced us to examine whether our interventions were actually changing outcomes, and explore how we could go further. It’s vital that organisations set public targets and place someone at the helm of their diversity mission to steer and provide counsel.

Recruitment tools undoubtedly have a valuable and vital role to play in addressing bias in the hiring process. But they cannot be a “set and forget” solution that lets employers off the hook for their diversity problems – real systematic change requires a much more holistic approach.

Diversity is vital for social mobility, for a just society, and for organisations to reach their potential. It’s a long road, but it’s worth travelling.


Davina Majeethia

Davina Majeethia

Davina Majeethia

Head of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI)

Davina is the head of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI).

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Christiana Markou

Christiana Markou

Christiana Markou

Recruitment Manager, People

Christiana is responsible for all recruitment across Nesta.

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Eszter Czibor

Eszter is a postdoctoral scholar at the Department of Economics of the University of Chicago.

Ksenia Zheltoukhova

Ksenia is an Organisational Behaviour and Leadership Expert, and is formerly Nesta's Chief Scientist.