Resources: Increasing diversity in job-recruiting – a trial that closed the racial gap has lessons for recruiters

Jim Simpson

Jim Simpson

Jim is a consultant, researcher, coach and developer.

Increasing diversity in the workforce is an important challenge.  The public trust government services and companies more if they see that their social identity - race, gender, disability etc. – is reflected in the service being provided.  Employers are therefore keen to improve the application rate and success rate of minority-group candidates.  A recruitment campaign for a regional police service managed to increase by 50% the pass rate on a pre-employment test, amongst non-white candidates.  They achieved this huge improvement by changing the wording of emailed information sent to candidates. How did this work[1] and what are the practical implications for employers?

Diversity really matters and the language of recruitment can make an enormous difference to successful recruiting. Behavioural scientists[2] set up an RCT (randomised control trial) to test the notion that ‘non-white’ candidates would be more likely to pass a job-application test, if they were given more encouraging and rewarding cues.  The experiment involved one group – the ‘control group’ – receiving the standard instructions about completing the test.

The second ‘treatment’ group received new and more positive and encouraging wording.   They were congratulated on successfully completing their first test and asked to think about being a police officer and what this meant to them and their community.

The reason that such a big, 50% improvement in targeted recruitment was achieved, is the social psychology that underpinned the experiment – nudging and priming people to think and act in certain ways.  Changes in the briefing to candidates ‘primed’ them to feel encouraged, reduced any anxiety and increased a sense of shared values between them and their potential, future colleagues in the police service. Candidates were primed to think about their values as important and congruent with the organisation that they might belong to, thereby tackling ‘belonging uncertainty’ and the need for ‘values affirmation’.  Also candidates were primed to not engage with ‘stereotype threat’ – the problem of the person feeling that they will be displaying stereotypical features of their social group in a detrimental way.

This rigorous study  has implications for employers.  Any employer who wants to diversify their workforce and get job-applications from targeted groups in the labour market, could be missing out on talent.  The wealth of contributions that a wide pool of social identities can bring might be lost. It is not just the police or teaching, medicine and nursing that have tough recruitment targets.  The private sector too needs to reach key segments in the labour market and do everything it can to achieve a more diverse workforce.

So, what does this research tell us that employers need to do? Here are some tips:

1) Get to know your target demographic –  look into the needs and concerns of your target demographic groups; what stops them applying to you?

2) Audit your materials – evaluate how your messages encourage or discourage your target groups; think also about how values can be explicit, clearly affirmed and congruent with your target group.

3) Test out your recruitment pack – anyone can run and a/b test to see which messages drive the most interest.

4) Get feedback – feedback fuels improvement, so make sure you are getting data in ways that can enable you to make step-by-step changes to your recruitment activities.

If you invest in these activities, use some social psychology, and make some changes to your outreach and marketing you may even save some money.  Reaching the human capital in the labour force that you need pays big dividends in the longer-term.  Also you can avoid expensive recruitments that don’t deliver the workforce talent and diversity that you need.

[1] More details on the study from 2017 are here: Linos E, Reinhard J, Ruda S. Levelling the playing field in police recruitment: Evidence from a field experiment on test performance. Public Admin. 2017;95:943–956.

[2] More on the behavioural insights team’s work with CIPD here, plus a link to the team’s main website:

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