Discrimination in recruitment? Nothing is ever as simple as it appears, says professor

Tiina Ramsila
According to Finnish law, people are equal when applying for a job and in the workplace. While the law says one thing, everyday life says another. The CV of a jobseeker with a foreign-sounding name may never be read up to the point describing competence and experience. Mothers of young children may worry about the employer’s prejudices, and those over 50 – or under 30 – wonder how to once again prove that age is just a number.

People are discriminated against in the labour market for various reasons, including age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity and disability. Riitta Viitala, professor of human resource management at the University of Vaasa, classifies discrimination-related phenomena into three categories: overt, covert and contextual. 

Of these, overt discrimination is intentional. Recruiters block candidates relying on personal beliefs that are based on strong prejudices or a hunch. 

“For example, a recruiter may strongly believe that a young person cannot cope with the type of task in question because they do not have enough experience. So, already at the application stage, the recruiter blocks out all applicants under 30. Or, the recruiter may think that a woman would not be a credible seller of certain products, or that they cannot hire a Muslim because they pray many times a day and that it would be impossible to accommodate,” Viitala explains.

Anonymous recruitment is a sign of a non-discrimination recruitment policy

Employers have taken steps to prevent or at least reduce discrimination. The City of Vaasa first experimented with anonymous recruitment in 2018. 

“Already in our personnel programme at the time, there was a promise that we would be an attractive and diverse employer. The anonymous recruitment method fits our promise perfectly and is a concrete measure to promote diversity.” 

The above are the words of Anne Lindell, the City of Vaasa’s recruitment manager. Lindell studies public management at the University of Vaasa alongside work. A funny coincidence: Lindell herself was recruited when the city first experimented with anonymous recruitment. 

Initially, recruiters only got to see the candidates’ work experience and training information without being able to categorise the applicants. The actual applications were included in the next recruitment stage.

Anonymous recruitment is applied to increase diversity and reduce discrimination in the recruitment procedure. 

“In addition, it sends out a message that the city’s doors are open to all people from different backgrounds and that we see diversity as a source of richness.”

"Anonymous recruitment has improved the managers’ recruitment skills. The managers must consider what actually is needed for the position and focus on the things important to the recruitment. The managers can now better match the candidates’ skills to what is essential."
Anne Lindell, the City of Vaasa’s recruitment manager

Country-specific practices vary between excessive exaggeration and modesty

Professor Riitta Viitala has seen overt discrimination up close. Ann, a Filipina in her immediate family, endured years of discrimination when looking for a job. A Filipino degree in business administration did not carry much weight in Finland, and she ended up as an institutional cleaner in a hospital. Even a university of applied sciences degree and master’s degree in ICT gotten in Finland did not help her find a job. The degrees were followed by various employment training, including welder training completed as a final effort. The most recent employment training as a process supervisor finally secured a job corresponding to the training.  

“Having a CV saying that she was born in the Philippines was enough to prevent her from getting job interviews. Even having an education in English and learning Finnish with tremendous effort was not enough to land a job.” 

Viitala considers anonymous recruitment a good yet imperfect way to combat discrimination. Recruiters need to be aware of the pitfalls.

“After switching to anonymous recruitment, many HR managers and directors have noticed that different countries and cultures take a different approach to how people sell themselves on their resume.” 

In some countries, candidates use extreme superlatives and emphasise trivial things out of proportion. In other countries – such as Finland and the other Nordic countries (at least so far) – the prevailing approach is modesty even up to a fault, austerity and sticking to the facts. This means that the applications may paint a picture of the individuals and their actual skills very far from reality, resulting in later disappointments in the workplace. 

“There are countries where recruitment companies train applicants to create a good brand for themselves to come up with a good sales letter, that is, an application and a CV. Furthermore, the trend in many countries is that you should not write the sales letter yourself but buy it as a service,” Viitala says. 

Ann also comes from a culture where exaggeration is not the norm. She could not sell or market herself, even finding it difficult to say anything complimentary about herself. Some 50 recruiters from Helsinki to Oulu did not notice her skills and attitude. 

Viitala also mentions that different cultures have very different perceptions of diligence, for example. Actual effective working time varies culture-specifically and is very difficult to figure out in an anonymous recruitment process. It is something that you only find out during the trial period. 

“When it comes to building human resources to promote and enrich diversity, a narrow approach to find a quick solution to your labour shortage will not suffice. It requires perseverance. If the recruitment process is overly hasty, you simply do not have the time to study the candidates carefully and be curious and open-minded.”

Riitta Viitala, professor of human resource management.

Anonymous recruitment improves the managers’ recruitment skills

After the trial phase, the City of Vaasa decided in 2020 that anonymous recruitment would become their permanent method. Managers are encouraged but not forced to adopt it.

“It has clearly improved the managers’ recruitment skills. We have been able to develop our job advertisements since the managers have understood that the better the job description is, the easier it is for the applicants to respond with their applications,” says Anne Lindell.

The managers must consider what actually is needed for the position and focus on the things important to the recruitment. The managers can now better match the candidates’ skills to what is essential. 

The City of Vaasa states in its call for applications that the recruitment is anonymous. Applicants complete their applications with the normal information, but there is also a free-form section where they are asked to describe their skills which are essential for the position without revealing their age, name, gender, native language or years of graduation. The recruitment software automatically compiles anonymous candidate summaries based on which the manager invites individuals to interviews.

“After that, the anonymous recruitment stage ends, and we send the manager all the information about the applicants. Therefore, even this recruitment method does not provide a shortcut to a happy ending with no discrimination whatsoever, as the managers’ prejudices or attitudes may still affect the outcome of the job interviews. However, this is our way of saying we pay attention to ensuring non-discrimination in the recruitment stage, which is important to us.”

The City of Vaasa has received positive feedback on anonymous recruitment from both managers and applicants. The experiences have been good, but not without challenges.

“It is important for the applicant to prepare a good application text and, specifically, describe their skills and match them to the requirements of the position.”

“Measuring discrimination is challenging, and we cannot say with absolute certainty whether this recruitment method has increased diversity.”

Anne Lindell, the City of Vaasa’s recruitment manager.

Recruiters may discriminate unknowingly

The second classification category mentioned by Professor Viitala, covert discrimination, is subconscious and unintended.

“The recruiters do not realise that they are reading the applications of different applicants, such as Finnish and foreigners or men and women, through different eyes,” Viitala explains. 

While overt discrimination can be detected, covert discrimination is the most difficult to get rid of. The selectors are sincerely convinced that they have made a fair choice. Their own eyes have produced an unequivocal ranking of the applicants. According to Viitala, to detect covert discrimination, you should go deep into an individual’s beliefs of people, which may have been formed way back in childhood. 

“When making the final choice, the recruiter may emphasise a single criterion, allowing one of three equally strong applicants to rise above the others. For example, the criterion may be that the applicant has experience in the technologies in the industry in which the company’s main customer operates or that the applicant has one piece of work experience in exactly the position in question.”  

“The same can happen unconsciously – sometimes also knowingly – as regards the applicant’s age, sexual orientation or religion, for example. In such cases, recruiters who consider themselves open-minded devise a logical criterion based on an unconscious discriminatory bias to exclude the other applicants.” 

"Everyone is obliged to help build an ethical and pluralistic work community, but it must be based on discussion and patience. It is irresponsible to simply force the situation on a group of people and say "here, show me that you have the makings of an open-minded community"."
Professor Riitta Viitala

Still a long way to workplace heaven

According to Viitala, there is not enough open discussion about the third category, contextual discrimination or situational selection. It refers to finding the most suitable person for a particular organisation, culture or operating environment. Different industries and companies feature a factor or factors that, for example within the organisational culture, seem to promote successful group integration. Depending on the perspective, this may look like discrimination. 

“For example, suppose a workshop thinks that it would be a good idea to bring in a person whose cultural background, sexual orientation or religious beliefs are radically different from those of the existing workforce. Despite good intentions, the situation can turn out to be very difficult both for that person and the community. It can lead to bullying and internal discrimination, the solving of which requires a lot of time and management resources.”  

A wise manager tries to find people who fit into the company’s culture. It reduces the risk of having to resort to long-term coaching, compensation for damages, combatting bullying or laying people off later on.

“I think we must accept common sense. It is unfortunate that the whole discourse on discrimination is just one big mush with black-and-white categorisations of what is or is not discrimination. In reality, discrimination is a very grey area where there can exist a common-sense reason to rule an applicant out. Things must be considered from many different viewpoints, never simplistically.”

Viitala lists the following as examples: Is it discrimination not to hire someone who uses a wheelchair as a shelf stocker or order picker? Of course not. It is not down to the wheelchair in itself, but the fact that the work requires you to reach high between the shelves. 

Or is it discrimination to hire a female doctor to serve the residents of an immigrant-heavy district even if there are male candidates with better credentials? If all the doctors in an area with thousands of Muslim background families are men, some women may never be able to see a doctor. In this case, it would be wise to hire the woman over the male applicants even if they were more accomplished.

“Everyone is obliged to help build an ethical and pluralistic work community, but it must be based on discussion and patience. It is irresponsible to simply force the situation on a group of people and say “here, show me that you have the makings of an open-minded community.” It is also unwise to set out to save a company’s reputation by hiring somebody who has nothing in common with the others, with that person having a long and arduous road ahead.”

Recruitment should be based on the person’s skills base. Viitala emphasises that the skills base must not be understood too narrowly as it includes not only the relevant hard skills but also industry skills, business skills, digital skills, interaction skills and skills needed for work, such as stress tolerance. The skills base indicates the prerequisites the candidate must have to perform effectively in the position. 

“Inclusion debate, pluralism and involvement are extremely important issues and goals, but also idealistic. When senior management describes their company as a community that treats and accepts everyone as equal and where everyone’s opinions are considered, they envision a workplace heaven. It is what we must strive for, but the harsh fact is that the real world is still quite far from that heaven. There is a lot of work ahead for all of us.”

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