Seven ways to tackle unconscious bias in finance and tax recruitment

Unconscious bias is the biggest barrier to diversity in the workplace. Has the increased use of remote working tools inadvertently helped businesses to tackle bias in the recruitment process or has the rise of video had the opposite effect? 

We talked to Rory MacSween, co-founder of  SRM, and diversity specialist, Emma Waltham, to answer this question and discuss the seven steps hiring managers can take to counter bias in tax and finance recruitment. 

What is unconscious bias?

We all form opinions of people based on first impressions. Those snap judgements are influenced by our background, formative experiences and those around us. It’s the hidden influences, if you like, that can often lead us to unwittingly ‘hire in our own image’.

1. Recognise that everyone has preconceptions 

The first piece of advice for hiring managers is to recognise unconscious bias as a concept. So be aware and adopt an open mindset when recruiting. As recruiters, we’re encouraged by our clients to source as much information on candidates as possible – that’s our job. The way we present that information to hiring managers is incredibly important and needs to be carefully considered to counter bias.

2. Focus on skills

A good recruiter needs to consider all the variables when matching candidates to a hiring managers mandate. Whilst focusing on culture and team fit can be important, it’s more likely to encourage unconscious bias. Consider focusing on skills and abilities before any other aspect of the candidate’s profile.

Putting in technical assessments for candidates at the first stage is gradually becoming more common – before the client even sees a CV. This allows the client to decide which candidate CV’s to review based on their technical competency – resulting in more diverse short lists.

“Certainly, one positive effect we’ve seen from the Covid lockdown is a willingness to do first-round telephone-based interviews. Removing that initial face to face meeting is helping to remove some of the unconscious bias from the decision-making process.”

Rory MacSween, Director, Tax, SRM Recruitment

3. Make the hiring process ‘blind’

– Remove names on CVs
– Remove education
– Remove location-based information that could indicate ethnic background

We’ve seen examples of clients requesting names be removed from CVs. So they’re looking at candidate 1, 2 and 3 and so on. It’s one very simple thing you can do to remove unconscious decision making based on gender or ethnicity and make more skillset based interview decisions. 

Subconsciously, or not, we are less likely to hire someone with a different-sounding name. Ethnic minorities need to send 60% more CVs to get the same number of call-backs as this study from the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College shows. 

In the tax and accountancy worlds, education is important. Whether you went to a state school v a particular private school or whether you have a degree or are educated by experience. Many of us have strong feelings on this one and would deny this is a bias! 

It’s really not common to take institution names off CVs for example. But things are changing. If we think back, we used to routinely put our date of birth and marital status on CVs in the UK. 

It was resisted at the time but seems completely normal to us now.

We think we’ll see more moves to anonymise information on CVs.

It stands to reason that someone from a poorer background, for example, just won’t have had access to the same educational opportunities. Yet we often insist that candidates must have gone to a particular institution which then unwittingly rules out a more diverse short list. 

So, you could miss out on outstanding candidates who don’t fit the ‘norm’ but have exactly the right skills.

Focusing on transferable skills rather than CV gaps allows employers to tap into talent pools of experienced women who often have hard to source qualifications and expertise.

4. Phone interview people in the first round 

Video calls are a great way to build rapport but I think there’s a danger we may start to over-rely on this in the new world to the detriment of diversity. A lot of hiring managers are ‘seeing’ people earlier in the recruitment process than they ever would have done before. For example, some recruitment firms are now relying on ‘video based CVs’ where the candidate introduces themselves over a prerecorded video.  

Our advice is that phone interviews do help focus on skills, not appearance.

Of course, even hearing a candidate’s voice can form strong impressions.

“Change is happening. We are starting to see organisations who won’t consider a shortlist without a 50-50 gender split.”

Rory MacSween, Director, Tax, SRM Recruitment

5. Go back to your graduate / newly qualified intake 

Those working in finance and tax, especially at the senior levels, say that it’s a predominantly white, middle class and male environment. According to the UK Government’s Gender Equality Monitor, just 12% of FTSE 100 Finance Directors are women and only 15% are CFOs. The 2020 Parker Review showed that across the FTSE 350, 7.5% were directors of colour. 

As we don’t always have the most diverse talent pool to draw from, it’s important to give minority voices the best chance in the recruitment process.

Going back a step it’s also about actively sourcing broader intakes at entry-level. We need to consider the talent pools from schools feeding the accounting firms, who then feed into industry. 

“There are nearly half a million women with professional and managerial qualifications who aren’t currently working but who would like to return to work. They too often face bias when they try to return because hiring managers are wary of applicants when their work experience isn’t current or they have an employment gap. 

Focusing on transferable skills rather than the gap means hiring managers will tap into this valuable talent pool of experienced women, who often have hard-to-source qualifications and expertise.”

Emma Waltham, Careers After Maternity Expert

6. Work in partnership with a good recruiter 

A good recruiter should be actively consulting and shaping the hiring managers wish list, educating you on the talent pool and helping you consider alternative options. 

In the past, we have had clients with requirements as specific as “we only want a Phd from Oxford.”  We’d encourage hiring managers to widen their thinking so they do find the best possible candidates, not just the typical profile or indeed hiring in their own likeness. 

For example by looking at international talent pools.

7. Consider international talent 

As more finance and tax work is offshored or near shored and more centres of excellence grow outside the UK there is a diverse pool of candidates with UK relevant experience to draw from. 

These candidates may never have visited the UK but they understand our regimes and businesses. Considering someone who’s trained overseas can give those outstanding academic credentials and technical skills that clients are looking for. 

Of course, these days it’s a little harder to sponsor people but it’s all possible.

Get in touch if you’re looking to hire

If you’re looking to hire the very best talent in finance and accounting and across the tax market get in touch with me, Rory MacSween today on +44 (0) 20 3637 7808 or connect with me on Linkedin. We are real recruiters who actively headhunt the best talent, rather than rely on the same set of candidates from a database.

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