Employer bias is undermining business innovation and potential says OU

Employer bias is undermining business innovation and potential says OU

Over a quarter of senior managers hire people just like them, and this bias is still rife in some organisations, according to new market research commissioned by The Open University. The study amongst business leaders and employees finds that three in 10 (29 percent) senior managers admit they hire people just like them, and warns employers may be overlooking candidates from different social and educational backgrounds, impacting access to talent, and hindering business innovation and performance as a result. Employers place significant importance on educational attainment (86 percent), cultural fit (77 percent), tastes and leisure pursuits (65 percent), and even social background (61 percent). Considering the typical social make up of managers, this raises concerns about diversity, a key driver of innovation, and hints at a glass ceiling for those from less privileged backgrounds, with the re-enforcement of the historical class system. The issue is prevalent in both recruitment and employment, with bias creating a ‘degree premium’, particularly at entry level.

More than half (55 percent) of managers would not be willing to take on employees without a degree and train them up in the skills required, which puts the minimum entry requirement out of reach for many.

And this bias continues once employed, as three in 10 (31 percent) employees with no higher education (HE) have no access to workplace training to improve their skills, in comparison to 21 per cent of those with an HE qualification. A quarter (25 percent) reports that colleagues who received a better education are given better opportunities. The ‘degree premium’ has left two thirds (67 percent) of those with only GCSEs or A-Levels stuck in low or semi-skilled employment – and with the challenge of automation and demand for higher-level skills, offering training to these people could provide a much-needed solution to the UK’s skills shortage.

Many organisations are effectively cloning themselves in the hiring and training decisions they make, which is compounded by the ‘stigma’ attached to apprenticeships and other forms of work-based training. One in six (16 percent) senior managers still incorrectly believes that apprenticeships are for those who could not get into university, while 13 per cent admit they think less of someone who has done an apprenticeship, but with the recent advent of degree apprenticeships and increase in quality and credibility triggered by the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, managers should revisit their biases and consider the benefits that apprentices can bring.

David Willett, Director at The Open University says: “Conscious or not, employers’ reluctance to hire workers without a degree, in part driven by managerial bias for appointing workers who ‘fit the mould’, is damaging both individual prospects and business potential in the UK. By seeing the latent potential in these workers, and investing in their training, organisations can boost skills and engagement, and bring more diversity into the workforce. An organisation of clones lacks the breadth of life experience and thinking required to drive creativity, innovation, and retain a diverse client base, which is essential if the UK is to compete on a global stage following Brexit.”

The study follows recent market research commissioned by The Open University which found the skills gap is costing UK businesses more than £2 billion a year in higher salaries, recruitment costs and temporary staffing, and the challenge of finding talent with the right skills means that businesses need to change their approach to recruitment, development and retention.


  1. Be self-aware Identify your ‘in-groups’ (social groups to which you feel you belong and naturally gravitate towards). When it comes to making personnel decisions question your judgement – are they based on merit or personal preference?
  2. De-personalise the applications Change your selection process so that recruiters cannot see applicants’ names, ages and universities. This ensures interviewees are selected based on merit and means they are more likely to come from diverse backgrounds.
  3. Remove degree entry requirements Setting a degree as a minimum entry requirement automatically shuts out many workers from less privileged backgrounds who could have spent time learning skills in a previous role or be eager and motivated to learn once in the role.
  4. Choose a diverse interview panel  Making your interview panel as diverse as possible, in terms of social, educational and employment background, reduces the risk of selecting a candidate based on natural chemistry and commonality.
  5. Test applicants  If you’re worried about bias during the ‘Q&A’ phase of the interview, try testing employees with tasks they will face in the role. Then compare applicants directly against the other, reducing the impact of ‘likeability’.
  6. Establish hiring criteria Setting out clear criteria to assess candidates against prior to a round of interviews means that unconscious bias is less likely to play a role in the hiring process. Alternatively, try strengths-based recruitment where you hire candidates based on innate strengths and motivators who have the potential to reach peak performance in their roles. This is very different to identifying candidates who just have the skills, experience and capabilities to do the job.
  7. Know your business Find out where your organisation might be falling short on diversity. Use metrics to reveal trends in hiring, retention, training and pay, or you could even speak to your current employees about their observations.
  8. Set diversity targets Diversity goals can raise the issue up the agenda, but they can also result in backlash from employees who find them unfair, or believe they devalue their role. To guard against this, highlight the business case for increasing diversity: growth, innovation and ultimately success.
  9. Train the leadership team A top-down approach is crucial for ensuring that organisations boost their diversity and equality – those who decide on training opportunities and set out workplace culture need to be leading by example, and may need additional training themselves.
  10. Consider where and how you’re advertising for a role Think about the wording you use in job descriptions and advertising carefully, as some words can put certain groups off. Consider joining a mentoring scheme or partnering with an equal opportunities organisation in your area.


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