Candidates with criminal records favored over those with a non-Western background

Written by: Corné
12 July, 2017

Read in: Nederlands

Applicants with criminal records are more likely to receive a positive reply from a potential employer than applicants with non-caucasian backgrounds, that is the conclusion from Dutch researchers van den Berg, Blommaert, Bijleveld, and Ruiter. Loosely translated they conclude: “The fact that also in our research minorities without a criminal record have a disadvantage compared to ‘Dutch’ applicants with a criminal record is worrisome”, which is perhaps an understatement given the results of their study. 

The fact that discrimination in recruitment is still a hot issue in the Netherlands is perhaps not a surprise: only last year the Dutch government launched a campaign against this type of discrimination, placing posters with the phrase “Discrimination during application” stuck through by a red marker (figure below), to grow awareness of this problem. Whether this campaign was successful unfortunately remains unknown: the research from van den Berg a.o. used data from 2013, which was before the campaign started.

How was the research conducted?

During the study, the researchers used a fictive 20 year old male who applied to 520 different vacancies on different online job boards. By slightly changing the details in the resume and motivation letter, and measuring the number of times a potential employer responded positively to the application, the researchers were capable of determining the chances of receiving a positive reply for different profiles. In particular, the researchers varied between different offences (sexual, violent, property, or no offence), the name of the candidate (Western vs non-Western name), and when the crime took place (last year vs more than three years ago). Furthermore, applications were sent to vacancies from different industries: construction, logistics and tech.

Avoiding discrimination

The poster from the Dutch government provides a clear hint towards the solution: “unconsciously we all have prejudices”. Discrimination in recruitment occurs unconsciously, i.e., we automatically favor one candidate over another, due to the preoccupations we have about these candidates. This psychological trait is also referred to as the implicit bias, and in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman provides many excellent examples of how our unconscious, or automatic, brain attempts to minimize the conscious thinking to avoid overload.

Examples of the unconscious mind taking over include substitution: unconsciously replacing a difficult question with an easier question, or the confirmation bias: collecting information in favor of a decision made in the past and ignoring information that is not coherent with the story in our minds. Both cognitive biases can lead to unconsciously discriminating when selecting a candidate. Furthermore, hiring decisions based on these preoccupations do not provide any predictive value for the future performance of the candidate.

Becoming aware of these psychological biases in our thinking is the first step towards the solution, but we can do more. On the website re:Work are many tips to get started, including:

  • Create awareness of cognitive biases in our way of thinking;
  • Measure diversity: without measurement it is simply impossible to verify whether new policies directed to reducing discrimination are effective;
  • When selecting a candidate, ensure to:
    • Have clear, and preferably quantifiable, criteria;
    • Use a predefined formula to determine which candidate is best suited, do not trust your own final judgement;
    • Use hiring committees to determine who to hire and remove the hiring manager from the hiring decision
  • A more formal (and unfortunately also more time consuming) procedure is the Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP), which enables the computation of coherence in your decision making

Final note

Currently, many firms are actively trying to increase the diversity of their organization, not only with regards to Western vs Non-Western employees, but also with regards to for example female executives. Unfortunately, the study did not incorporate whether the firm towards which an application was sent is stating to be actively increasing workforce diversity. Hence, we hope that incorporating this into the analysis will be on the future research agenda.