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Ethical Practice When Interviewing

The importance of ethical practices when interviewing

Now more than ever, companies are being scrutinised for their ethical practices and barely a week goes by without an expose of a company's misdeeds towards their employees.

As such, the workforce is significantly more aware of what isn't acceptable behaviour in the workplace, and this starts with your interview process.

Ethics in interviewing isn't just important in helping your business recruit the best candidate; it is also a matter of legality. There are specific criteria that it is illegal to base employment decisions upon, and it could cost you and your company unnecessary time, money and negative press if you aren't clued up on how to implement ethics into your interviews and recruitment process.

This article will guide you through some of the most common mistakes employers can make in the interview process so you can avoid them.

Unconscious bias, what is it and how can you avoid it?

Naturally, as an employer, you would never enter an interview situation intending to conduct it with a bias towards one candidate or another based on anything but their ability to fulfil the role in question.

However, the human mind is a complex entity, and your 'unconscious bias could sabotage your ability to implement ethics in interviewing'. Unconscious bias is where, without thinking, we naturally favour people like ourselves and can, again unwittingly, discriminate against those we perceive as "different".

'Unconscious bias' could be as simple as this person looks like me, dresses like me and acts like me. Therefore, as I am good at my job, they must be equally good. Unintentionally, you could be unfairly favouring them over others. 

Similarly, 'unconscious bias' could make you base decisions upon things such as the candidate's social background, education, even down to what football team they support and the fact that they've recently holidayed at the place where you took the family last Easter.

Having an unconscious bias does not make you a terrible person. It's in the name: it's unconscious, so it does not mean you are actively choosing to discriminate. But, to conduct an ethical interview, you should be aware of it and be prepared to put in place processes to mitigate against it.

You can combat unconscious bias in interviews in four key ways:

Firstly, by keeping the conversation relevant to the situation. When meeting a new person, it is natural to try and find common ground, but this isn't a social event; it's an interview. There will be plenty of time for friendly sports chat at office socials later down the line. In the interview process, try to keep your mind on the goal at hand, finding the best candidate for the role and your business.

Secondly, and this might seem obvious, be conscious of your unconscious bias. Question why you warm to one candidate over another and be sure that it isn't because you are letting unconscious bias get the better of you.  

Thirdly, decide on what tangible skills, qualities, experience, and attributes you are looking for before you start interviewing by having a defined person specification and interview and solely benchmark candidates using this criterion.

Lastly, involve other people in your recruitment process and discuss 'unconscious bias' with your follow interviewers beforehand so that you are all aware of the impact it can have upon your decision-making abilities. The best way to mitigate against bias is merely to score independently and then justify to your fellow interviewers exactly why you scored applicants in certain areas higher or lower than others.

What are the Common 'trip-ups' and what is 'indirect discrimination'?

You should not ask many questions in interviews (see Interview questions that employers are not allowed to ask).

Asking an interviewee, particularly a woman, if they have children can seem like an innocuous conversation starter; you may have children of your own and are innocently looking to garner some common ground between yourself and the interviewee. However, this simple question is a minefield for ethical interviewing practices and is one of several common trip-ups.

Asking a woman if she plans to have children is discriminatory on several levels and is an 'off-limits topic' for interviewers in most countries.

Indirect discrimination tends to be more subtle than direct discrimination, and many hiring managers have found themselves in 'hot water' by asking what they perceive to be innocent questions. Perhaps an icebreaker such as 'you've got a great accent, where were you raised?' An interviewee can rightly interpret this as a form of race or nationality discrimination, and while it may seem like a simple, innocent question, it can make candidates feel unwelcome and may contribute to unconscious bias in the recruitment process.

Other unwise conversation starters include marital status, place of birth and age. These questions can all be linked to the EU terms "protected characteristics", which is discriminatory and against equality laws. Protected characteristics include age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, race and religion, as well as marital status and pregnancy.

Thinking back to avoiding unconscious bias, other good topics to avoid are: "Where did you go to school?", "Why didn't you go to university?", "How do you feel about the current Prime Minister?"; questions like these can feed your conscious or unconscious biases and sabotage your interview ethics.

Can you use AI in a recruitment process?

One possible way to enhance ethical recruitment practices is using artificial intelligence in the hiring process. Already in use by some major companies in the UK and US, incorporating artificial intelligence into the interview process is being mooted as a way to remove the barrier of unconscious bias and promote more diverse and fair hiring practices.

However, when Amazon tried to use AI in its recruitment process, it turned out that the computer developed its own bias towards hiring men ('The Telegraph', 10th October 2018). AI may have an important role to play in ethical interview practices of the future, but there are more immediate and accessible ways for employers to implement good interview practices in the present.

Other forward-thinking companies redact or remove certain information from CVs before passing it through to hiring managers. This includes censoring data such as the name, place of education, date of birth, address, any gender-specific pronouns such as 'his' or' her', work history before a decade ago, and so forth so that any potential unconscious bias is removed before the shortlisting stage.

Processes to put in place for your business now

If you're looking to improve or protect your company's ethical practices when recruiting, it is worth looking towards the public sector for advice. Recruitment in the public sector tends to follow a much more formal process than the private sector and, as such, provides resources to staff that clearly state how to conduct interviews ethically. 

Four things that the public sector tends to do better than the private sector when recruiting are:

  1. Working through a planned recruitment process and checklist.
  2. Devising a detailed person specification before sourcing applicants.
  3. Involving more than two decision-makers into every recruitment process – often from different departments and with different 'agendas'.
  4. Have a process based upon scoring candidates on evidence or logic, such as competency-based interviewing or combining competency and values-based interviewing techniques.

Follow the above model and make sure all your staff is on the same page regarding the interview process. Education is vital here to avoid interview malpractice and be sure to keep team members up to date on the do's and don'ts of ethical interviewing.

Recommended Action Point: Creating a simple "rules of interviewing" one-page resource for employees could be a significant first step to upping the ethical interviewing credentials of your company.

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Date published: 6th March 2024

Rob Scott, Aaron Wallis Sales Recruitment, Author Photo

About the author

Rob Scott

Rob is the Managing Director of Aaron Wallis Sales Recruitment, a national recruitment agency specialising in sourcing sales and marketing staff for businesses across a broad range of commercial sectors. Before setting up Aaron Wallis, Rob spent ten years at a specialist Sales and Marketing recruitment division of a £0.5BN recruitment group, leaving in 2007 as Marketing & Sales Director to establish Aaron Wallis.
With over 24 years of experience in sales recruitment, Rob is a History graduate with an MBA (Merit) and a PgCert in Management Practice.  In 2007, 2009 and 2013 Rob conducted the most extensive surveys of sales professionals in the UK and is a trusted authority in the sales industry. From guiding employers through the recruitment process to helping candidates find their dream job, Rob's advice has been quoted in leading publications such as Business Insider and The Independent, as well as OnRec, which host The Online Recruitment Awards every year.

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The detail put into the preparation for interviews and the detail of the job description was first class. Rob and Simon in particular are amongst the best I've ever dealt with.

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George above and beyond to make sure I had everything I need to secure my new role. Outstanding Professional.

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The staff at Aaron Wallis were fantastic. Throughout the process, they maintained excellent communication and I always knew where I stood.

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Aaron Wallis is an outstanding recruitment agency specialising in high calibre sales positions. I was working directly with Darren Dewrance who went above and beyond my expectations in sourcing me my perfect role. I was kept in regular communication with Darren and he worked extremely hard to secure my dream job. Highly recommended and Thanks Darren for all your expertise and hard work.

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Very good advice and support was given during the course of the interviewing process. Potential job seekers would be well advised to use this company whilst looking for their new career.

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Managed to get me placed within a week! Really friendly and easy to deal with. Always available for a call and my biggest challenge was I was in work at the time I was looking for my next opportunity (which is stressful) but Sam made that easy.

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Wanted to say a huge thank you to Simon Bonner who has just helped me secure my new role. He was one of the most professional recruiters I have ever worked with he was supportive really quick at replying and really put me at ease.

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I had the absolute pleasure of working with George Humphries on finding a placement best suitable for me.

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I had a great experience. Helped me every step of the way to get my new job. Sophie was very polite, kind and helpful!

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Sophie helped me secure a new role I have been searching for. She took her time to explain clear and concisely all I needed to succeed at the interview stage. Thanks again Sophie!

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Fantastic customer service, communication was brilliant, happy polite people to talk to, made everything a lot easier and smoother. Thank you for all your help getting me back in the work force, Keep up the good work :-)

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The most professional recruitment agency I've ever worked with. Robert Scott was extremely proactive and send me a detailed briefing before each interview, ensuring I was well prepared.

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Aaron Wallis Sales Recruitment are a very friendly and professional recruitment organisation who listen to your needs, work with you and act on your behalf which sets them apart from many of their competitors who in my experience are willing to throw anything at you. We discussed my history, my preferences and my wishes - one opportunity was introduced. It was perfect. I start at the end of June.

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