June 16, 2021

Want a Fairer Society? Get Rid of Your Socioeconomic Talent Filters

Back in March, I wrote a post that attempted to measure the scale of the pandemic learning crisis. I expect this crisis to be the longest shadow of COVID-19, set to blight the world long after most of the other effects of the virus will be but a distant memory.

Any company that is serious about ESG and sustainability should reflect on how it can help — or do less harm — in this new, dramatically less educated and less equal world. In the following, I will share some thoughts on what companies, and especially the ones in tech, should do differently in the new era.

First, there is the role of technology itself. It is possible that innovation in EdTech, together with bridging the digital divide within and between countries, would help the world’s school goers and leavers to catch up on what they have missed during the school closures. There may well be a wave of new, ingenious and purpose-driven innovators arriving to tackle the challenge and make a difference. I hope there will be.

Second, well-targeted donations of tech, expertise or plain cash from established companies can sometimes go a long way, especially if they are supported by proper impact assessments. (Too many corporate charitable activities are not, but that’s another problem altogether.) There has clearly been uptick in such efforts during the pandemic, and some of that increased good-doing may well continue. I hope it will.

However, if a company really wants to mitigate the learning crisis and its long-term effects it needs to urgently revisit its role as an employer. The rest is tinkering.

Innovation and charity can help, and will no doubt generate easier PR, but in terms of social outcomes they are totally secondary to jobs creation. The damage of school closures has been done already, so the focus should now be on mitigating the second-order effects. After all, from the social point of view arguably the biggest function of quality education is that it opens access to careers with a higher pay and/or a higher status. For very many children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, that ladder to better living standards and new social horizons is now irrepairably broken. Fixing this problem requires radically rethinking how employers in a fast-growing sector such as technology allocate jobs, and thereby economic opportunity.

I would flag up three elements in modern hiring and talent management that are particularly problematic in this regard. Let’s call them socioeconomic talent filters.

This is what they are are and how they work:

Hiring for academic qualifications – i.e. when a company specifies a certain type of degree from a certain type of academic institution as a requirement or a preference

Hiring for social capital – i.e. when a company leverages referrals and recommendations from the existing staff when sourcing new candidates

Hiring for location – i.e. when a company ringfences new roles or advancement opportunities to a narrow geographical area

I cannot understate how big an impact each of these three have on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at the organizational level, as well as on social mobility and fairness at the societal level. Each of them adds another layer of stratification to an organization’s socioeconomic makeup by gradually turning the addressable talent pool into a reflection of the kinds of people who already work there. And in doing so, the same filters collectively then turn opportunities for gainful employment in the wider society into a socioeconomic closed shop that is de facto inaccessible to people from different types of backgrounds.

What all have further in common is that there is nothing inherently inevitable about them, but they are mostly byproducts of corporate inertia or managerial laziness. Top-tier higher education is mostly valued for its signalling effect, internal referrals help speed up the hiring process, and by attaching jobs to specific physical locations organizations can stick to their old workflows and legal structures.

I am not claiming that the three filters don’t have also their own legitimate uses in recruitment. Some jobs of course require a strong theoretical foundation from day one, and some others cannot be performed outside of a specific location. And disregarding the value of mutual pre-established trust among people would not be realistic (or entirely human) either.

Yet what I do argue is that applying all three filters at the same time, to a role whose responsibilities genuinely do not necessitate them, can never have business benefits that would be high enough to offset their negative externalities on society. If you are a business leader who truly cares about issues such as social justice, equal opportunity and systemic racism you should apply such filters more intentionally, aware of the impact that your choices have on society. By being intentional, I’m talking about asking questions such as these:

How critical is a certain academic background for doing the job effectively? Does the job actually require an academic degree in the first place? Could the company itself take more ownership over theoretical training?

How can we improve our workforce diversity while relying on referrals? Are we biased towards favoring people who look, sound or think like us? Could the company balance the referred talent with a more proactive outreach to under-represented communities?

How badly does the role need to be based at its default location? Is the location criterion a social trade-off we are willing to make? Could the company invest in tools and structures that would allow us to hire from different regions or countries?

As always, fixing structural problems starts from acknowleding them first, and the same goes for the filters I’ve discussed. The next step, then, would be to start getting rid of them, when and where possible. The case for doing so has never been greater.

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