Traditionally, the goal of hiring has been solely to find the best person for the job.
But in today’s work environment, where companies are increasingly concerned about ethical practices, hiring managers have a second priority: increasing diversity. In fact, 35% of hiring managers list enhancing workplace diversity as one of their top five priorities.
More broadly speaking, prioritizing diversity means creating a fair and equal hiring environment for all applicants regardless of race, gender, or other group identity status.
For many recruiters, this dual objective raises an important question:
Are these two goals at odds with each other? If I prioritize something other than finding the best fit for the job, could that negatively impact my hiring effectiveness?
While many hiring managers find that the two goals can work in harmony, it depends on what you mean by “fair and equal.”
In this article, we discuss two belief systems around equality and fairness:
- Equality of opportunity
- Equality of outcome
We look at both systems in the context of hiring and explain why equality of opportunity is the more favorable approach for recruiters looking to reduce barriers, enhance diversity, and create better hiring outcomes.
Table of contents
Setting things straight: Equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome
These two ideas are more than just different approaches to hiring; they’re ethical viewpoints.
Both equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are philosophical, political, and ethical approaches to fairness, but each makes different assumptions about what “fair” actually means.
Proponents of equality of opportunity believe that fairness exists when everyone starts on a level playing field, with no barriers imposed on any specific group.
For example, the belief that all Americans should be able to pursue tertiary education, without the barrier of racial discrimination, is based on the idea of equality of opportunity.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is grounded in this idea:
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy and related conditions, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
In contrast, those supporting equality of outcome believe that fairness isn’t about where people start, but where they end up.
In the above scenario, it’s not enough that all applicants to a given college are given the opportunity to pursue that application, but that there is equity within the selection process as well.
For instance, if 40% of applicants for a given course are of Asian descent, then 40% of those accepted should be Asian too. The outcome is what matters in this concept of fairness.
The problem with equality of outcome
Neither concept is a one-size-fits-all solution, and it’s easy to imagine scenarios where the application of either just doesn’t work.
Consider, for instance, the case of equality of outcome taken to the extreme, which would assert that every person in a given role should be paid the same amount, regardless of any individual factor such as diligence, initiative, or skill level.
The biggest problem with the equality of outcome theory on a societal level is that, if taken to extremes, it does away with competition and, therefore, hierarchies of competence.
And as it turns out, the incentive to progress and improve is a huge source of positive emotion and gives a sense of purpose to our lives.
From a hiring perspective, achieving equality of outcome is a tricky proposition indeed.
Say, for example, you put out a job ad for an engineer. Only 10% of your applicants are female (which is about on par with the actual percentage of female engineers). But because 50% of the population is female, and your goal is to create equal outcomes, 50% of the candidates you hire must be women.
This systemically disadvantages the men who applied, which is arguably less fair than if you had hired 10% women in line with your applicant pool.
Additionally, forcing equality of hiring outcomes can quickly become at odds with the goal of hiring the best talent.
Let’s adjust the example and assume that your applicant pool is 50/50 men and women. What if, in this specific hiring round, from a skills perspective, 80% of the best applicants are women?
Do you have to specifically hire the men who are, by the objective measure you’ve created, not as strong a fit for the role?
Is that fair for the applicants who are better suited for the role? Moreover, is it fair for your company?
How far can we go with equality of opportunity?
Conversely, the actual application of equality of opportunity can prove difficult to implement due to historical and systemic disadvantages. Because of institutionalized prejudice, people simply don’t start out on a level playing field.
Even if your organization removes all barriers to hiring based on racial background, the truth is that some applicants may be at a disadvantage because of their demographic. For example, only one in five Hispanic Americans holds a college degree, meaning the majority are immediately out of the running for the 70% of jobs that require one.
It’s difficult to say, then, that this system is “fair” to that individual.
The question begs, then, to what degree can or should we correct for these things?
If a given group is systematically or historically disadvantaged, is it the responsibility of recruiters to create systems that give them some other form of advantage to level the playing field?
The case for equality of opportunity in recruitment
So, what’s the best way to look at these two models from a hiring perspective?
We should focus on an equality of opportunity approach, but a realistic and mindful one that moves beyond “we won’t discriminate when we make decisions” and actively removes barriers for disadvantaged groups (ones that you might not even be aware exist, like internal biases).
Equality of outcome is a good goal to keep in mind, but it shouldn’t be enforced. We should want the outcome to be equal without forcing it to happen.
Our job is to do our best to be mindful of existing barriers and avoid putting any additional barriers in place, bearing in mind, of course, that the primary goal is to hire the best person for the job.
For the example where one in five Hispanic Americans holds a degree and yet 70% of jobs require one, we might question whether certain roles actually need degree requirements. Removing that criteria where it’s unnecessary, rather than setting a hiring quota for recruiting Hispanic Americans, is the better way to promote equality of opportunity.
Avoiding the equality of outcome rabbit hole
There’s no debate that companies are increasingly feeling the social pressure to address diversity when it comes to hiring.
Unfortunately, most take the wrong path. They commit to arbitrary diversity and inclusion quotas.
We see organizations like Ralph Lauren, Delta Airlines, and Wells Fargo all pledging to increase their numbers of BIPOC leaders, and tech companies like Gong putting hard numbers on hiring goals for female employees.
Why? Because it’s the easy way out.
Companies like these go out of their way to promote their moral superiority and allyship with underrepresented groups by simply creating another box to tick.
As the hiring manager, this puts you in a challenging position.
Your goal is to hire the best talent for the job you’re trying to fill, but you’re faced with a top-down directive to hit arbitrary D&I quotas.
To align these two goals, creating genuine diversity while finding the best talent for your company, you need to set up a hiring process that promotes equality of opportunity.
The remainder of this article looks at how to actually do that, so you can use your more nuanced understanding of how to put the idea into action to move away from arbitrary quotas and toward an opportunity-based equality model.
Building a hiring process that promotes equality of opportunity
Setting hiring mindset priorities
Your first step is to ensure everyone is on the same page in regard to your hiring goals and priorities.
You can’t move forward with an effective hiring process that promotes equality of opportunity without first understanding and agreeing on what that means within your organization.
Creating equality of opportunity is about more than just stating, “We won’t discriminate based on race, gender, or any other group characteristic.”
You must actively seek to remove barriers that prevent equality of opportunity, which serves the end goal of both broadening and strengthening your hiring pool.
But those barriers aren’t always in plain sight…
Understanding implicit biases
A bias exists when you favor applicants of one group over another, such as when you are more likely to hire:
- Men over women
- Liberal candidates over conservative candidates
- White applicants over Black applicants
Such preferences seem immediately abhorrent to the vast majority of the population. But biases like these can be implicit. That is, we aren’t consciously aware that we hold them.
A number of studies have noted the natural occurrence of in-group preference (and the corresponding out-group discrimination that results): We seem to be evolutionarily primed to prefer those that match our group profile, such as people from the same ethnic background.
But the race picture is more complicated than that.
One study into implicit bias found “strong implicit pro-White preference.”
This finding was strongest among White participants but still significant across remaining participants of Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American backgrounds, “making clear that the result is more than an own-group preference effect.”
Unconscious bias and hiring discrimination extend far beyond race:
- One study shows that both men and women are twice as likely to hire a man over a woman
- More physically attractive applicants are more likely to be hired post-interview than those who are considered less so
- Job applicants with “non-standard accents” may be differentially disadvantaged during the hiring process due to unconscious interviewer bias
Even individual character differences like confidence and extroversion can have a huge impact on unconscious hiring bias.
This study from Greece found that a candidate;s self-confidence has a significant impact on recruiters’ decision-making process
To effectively reduce bias in your hiring process, you must first accept, as an organization, that there may be factors that create unconscious bias.
It’s not a matter of pointing fingers or castigating individuals for being “racist,” “bigoted,” or “discriminatory.”
It’s about understanding that there are evolutionary, systemic, and socialized causes that drive unconscious bias so that you can identify opportunities to overcome those biases by strategically removing hiring barriers.
Removing roadblocks during the application process
There are a number of roadblocks in the traditional hiring process that create barriers to equality of opportunity.
The most obvious is the requirement for college-level degrees.
For a long time, this has been a standard requirement that recruiters have included without enough thought as to whether a degree is necessary for the role.
Some jobs require degrees. You wouldn’t hire a CPA or in-house legal counsel without the relevant accreditation.
But for many positions, recruiters have simply used degrees as a proxy for conscientiousness (they must be hard workers if they stuck to a four-year degree) and soft skills like communication, teamwork, and time management.
Retaining the degree requirement differentially hinders Black and Hispanic candidates, who are around half as likely to have a degree as White and Asian American applicants. As a result, you shrink your talent pool and miss out on accessing the diversity of experience and ideas that drive organizational success.
Consider replacing degree requirements with skills, personality, and work motivation tests.
For instance, if you previously used college degrees as a proxy for soft skills, you can use pre-employment assessments like this communication skills test.
For the kinds of unconscious biases related to race, gender, and other group identity makers, one suitable strategy for promoting equality of opportunity is to make application data anonymous.
That is, as the hiring manager, you cannot see an applicant’s name, gender, racial background, or any other data that may unconsciously influence your decision-making process.
Some of the hurdles to creating a stronger and more diverse hiring pool aren’t even ones that you put in place.
Consider, for instance, the differences between how men and women apply for jobs.
On average, male job-seekers are more likely than their female counterparts to apply for a position even if they don’t meet all the qualifications or requirements in the job description. As a result, women apply for around 20% fewer job openings than men.
We have a whole guide on combating this interesting finding: How skills-based hiring can help close the gender application gap.
Change the way you use interviews
Interviews are one of the worst culprits preventing a truly equal outcome-focused hiring process from flourishing.
Around 60% of interviewers say that within 15 minutes, they’ve already made up their minds about a candidate.
Couple that with internal unconscious biases like in-group preferences and the impact of things like confidence and accent, and it’s no wonder that the typical unstructured interview has consistently been found to be a terrible predictor of workplace success.
Follow in the footsteps of Google, who did away with unstructured interviews entirely when HR determined that they only predicted around 14% of actual job performance.
Work samples, structured interviews, and pre-employment assessments all have a much stronger predictive validity, meaning they’re better for hiring right the first time.
All of this essentially means that switching to a skills-based approach to hiring is your biggest growth lever in creating a process that promotes equality of opportunity.
Implementing a skills-based approach
Skills-based organizations – those that prioritize and promote individuals’ skills over things like experience, education, and culture fit – outperform traditional companies.
In Deloitte’s latest review of skills-based companies, they found that such organizations are:
- 107% more likely to place new hires effectively
- 98% more likely to retain top performers
- 63% more likely to achieve organizational performance goals
- 98% more likely to develop a reputation as a great place to work and grow
- 49% more likely to improve process efficiencies and maximize productivity
Follow these steps to adopt a skills-based hiring practice:
- Start small and scale up. Look at the roles with your highest turnover and begin there.
- Conduct a skills gap analysis. Use this to inform the specific skills you’re looking for in new hires.
- Get clear on skill requirements. Make sure each role you hire for has absolute expectations about what skills are required to perform well.
- Create skills-based job descriptions. Communicate skill expectations to applicants, so they know whether they are a fit before applying.
- Use skills tests at the top of your hiring funnel. These should be skills-based assessments relevant to the specific skills outlined in your job description.
- Convert to structured interviews. Throw out unstructured interviews and use skill-based structured conversations to assess all applicants objectively.
Hiring with a long-term view
The strongest and most ambitious companies don’t just convert to skills-based hiring; they adopt a skills-based approach to their organization as a whole.
This means starting with a base of skills testing and strategic barrier removal during the hiring process, then expanding to encompass strategies like:
- Targeting STARs (people skilled through alternative routes) during the hiring process to broaden and diversify sources of experience and, therefore, skill sets
- Using leadership skills assessments internally to identify future leaders and create appropriate development plans
- Focusing on hiring applicants with relevant soft skills rather than prioritizing hard skills, creating a long-term lens through which to view hiring decisions
- Moving from a “culture fit” to a “culture add” model to broaden the diversity of viewpoints and access different perspectives for organizational growth
- Fractionalizing work to enable employees to move more freely between projects that require their skills rather than being confined to a specific role
Skills-based hiring should be a long-term strategy, one that funnels new hires into a learning and development plan focused on advancing and maturing employee skill sets.
Learn how to build this long-term strategy by reading our full guide to skills-based learning and development.
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