Unconscious Bias Could Be Stopping You From Harnessing The Potential Of New Grads

Anyone who has been a recent graduate searching for a job knows how difficult it can be. Intimidating advice like, “it’s not what you know; it’s who you know” and a plethora of exclusive job description phrases like, “five to seven years of experience required” are seemingly impenetrable parts of the job search. It can be very difficult to know how to present one’s accomplishments and capabilities in a way that will be attractive to businesses. And organizational cultures favoring tradition and proven expertise can seem foreign and poor fitting to today’s new talent.

Now consider the situation from the business leaders’ point of view. In a world that is requiring organizations to be increasingly agile, innovative, and fast-paced, fresh eyes and minds could be a key company asset. But at the same time, businesses are facing widening skills and talent shortages in which they don’t have the talent they need in order to drive these new objectives. Somewhere along the line, new grads are being overlooked for opportunities — even though they may be the very solution organizations need.

Why aren’t we hiring more new grads?

Our recruiting messages are exclusive. There is plenty of research to suggest that the content, wording, and images used in company recruiting resources have an impact on the kinds of people an organization is able to attract. A company’s culture and employment brand is frequently inferred through the first touch a prospective employee has with that company. This includes the first time a prospect reads a job description. Often intentionally, job descriptions are crafted in a way that deters new grads from applying. Sometimes there are highly skilled positions that require extensive experience with and knowledge of the subject matter. But a lot of the time, and especially now in the rapidly changing job market, agility and innovation are more important than familiarity with how things were done in the past. Our job advertisements and descriptions rarely emphasize this.

Our HR processes are outdated. A significant issue in HR is that we continue to recruit, hire, manage, and engage employees using many of the same methods we’ve used for decades — and that were developed when the workforce looked significantly different than it does now. When it comes to recruiting and hiring, these practices include things like reviewing resumes and requiring job interviews, and while they certainly add structure to the selection process they also allow unconscious bias to influence decisions. Especially in smaller organizations with lean HR teams, it is frequently up to one or two people to determine whether a job candidate is ideal for a role. Implicit conceptualizations about what a “successful employee” looks like can significantly influence who we choose to hire. For many roles, the “successful employee” ideal may not include assessments of potential or capacity to do things differently — but these are the very qualities new grads could be bringing into our workforce.

Our focus is off. In recent years organizations have begun focusing heavily on recruiting and retaining millennials. Ironically, this can impede organizations from harnessing the best newly graduated talent. For one thing, millennials are themselves a very diverse group. Born between 1980 and 2000, millennials are the first generation to be “digital natives,” but they are not uniform in terms of work preferences and values — something millennial-focused recruiting efforts typically fail to take into account. Initiatives to bring millennials in may not result in the right millennials joining your workforce.

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What can organizations do? Recent grads can be a tremendous asset to your business, not just because they are young but because they possess certain skills and capabilities that more seasoned employees may not have. The ones that come with up-to-date academic knowledge, a passion for ingenuity, and creative problem-solving capabilities are the ones your organization needs — but your recruiters and hiring managers need to be adept at finding them. How can your company ensure that you are fully leveraging the potential power of new grads?

  1. Show off your updated HR processes. Research has shown that individual hiring manager bias can hinder certain groups of people from being hired. Similarly, we rely on the job interview so much that hiring decisions tend to reward good interviewers rather than good candidates. All of these tendencies impede newly graduated employees from being selected — and our recruiting and selection processes do nothing to moderate them. Adopting processes that enable your organization to hire for potential rather than experience can help drive significant change, both in terms of how we view the “ideal candidate” and in who we ultimately choose to work in our organizations. This work does not stop at recruiting. Adopting performance management processes that focus on impact and the future rather than on past accomplishments further reinforces an organizational culture in which the road ahead is what matters most — and that your organization is a place where early career talent can succeed.
  2. Remove the influence of unconscious bias. In our search for the “perfect” candidate we often don’t realize we are paving the way for only specific groups of candidates to succeed. Technology can help surface potential bias in the recruiting process, helping us determine where to focus when creating more equitable, fair selection practices. From enabling us to determine the words and phrases that create demographically unbalanced job applicant groups to allowing us access to rich data and reports that show hiring and retention trends, technology can act as an ally in efforts to ensure we are not excluding and overlooking early career talent.
  3. Consider the culture. It often seems like ageism is the last acceptable form of workplace discrimination. It is not uncommon for managers and coworkers to remark on how young someone looks, particularly when they’ve achieved something difficult or important. Consider abolishing this phraseology from your workforce in favor of a culture that encourages and congratulates everyone for their successes.
  4. Consider the needs of your organization. When it comes down to it, your company needs to attract, engage, and harness the people who will best support the strategy, mission, and vision your leaders have crafted. Hiring young employees for the sake of having young employees is not what will lead you to this goal. But neither is inadvertently overlooking or dismissing entire groups of employees based on unconscious bias. Although not classically experienced, newly graduated employees have a lot to offer your organization. Can you spot their potential before your competitors do?
Gabby Burlacu

SAP's Dr. Gabriela (Gabby) Burlacu is a Human Capital Management Researcher at SAP, conducting research to better understand, identify and communicate how companies can leverage HCM technology to drive real business change in an ever-changing world.

She received her doctorate in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Portland State University, where she studied the motivational, attitudinal, and behavioral impacts of performance feedback. Although Gabby’s role at SAP involves engaging with companies broadly on issues and challenges related to managing their workforces, often this involves directly addressing the design and implementation of performance management systems that meet the needs of employees and managers. When Gabby is not on the frontline of strategic talent management, she can be found boating, kayaking, and hiking in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.