Diverse workplaces typically are more innovative and accurate, and they outperform homogeneous workplaces. It’s no wonder the public sector is striving to advance diversity in hiring. In 2021, the Biden administration issued an executive order mandating a more diverse federal workforce. Many state and local government employers have dedicated diversity and inclusion programs as well. But progress is slow-going.
According to a 2021 report by NeoGov, Black talent comprises 13 percent of the total U.S. workforce, but makes up 28 percent of public sector job candidates. However, even though a larger proportion of Black people apply for public service positions, they are hired below their application rate, while White candidates are hired above their application rate.
Clearly, racial bias and inequitable systems contribute to this gap. Strategies such as structured interviews and hiding applicant’s identities during reviews are common methods used to address this bias. But what about these strategies makes them effective? The science behind them can help HR professionals understand why and when they work and make the case for including them in their organization’s hiring protocol.
What Is Behavioral Science?
Behavioral science is the study of human behavior and the ways that our actions are shaped by environmental and contextual factors. A behavioral insights approach combines evidence about behavior with rigorous evaluation to discover solutions to practical issues, like minimizing racial bias in hiring.
A common application of behavioral insights is called an intervention or “nudge.” A nudge is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.
The goal of a nudge is to arrange choices so that beneficial behaviors are more likely. For instance, imagine a grocery store where people overlook the fruit because it is tucked away on an inconspicuous shelf, and buy less of it than they would have if it was at the front of the store. If the fruit is put at eye-level, it is more likely to be selected; placing it there would count as a nudge.
Using Behavioral Insights to Increase Workforce Diversity
The public sector faces more nuanced barriers to building a diverse workforce. For example, unconscious racial bias can result in hiring managers favoring applicants with White sounding names over those with Black sounding names. A behavioral insights approach can take these kinds of factors into account and inform a realistic strategy to help address them, such as anonymously assessing applicants.
There are many opportunities to test and innovate HR practices to ensure they are effectively addressing barriers related to diversity. By using evidence about why people act the way they do, public sector employers can design and implement policies that embed racial equity throughout the hiring process.
Our organization, The Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), has distilled the growing body of evidence from behavioral science into four key principles for encouraging a given behavior, a framework we call EAST: Make it Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely.
With our partners at the Volcker Alliance and support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, we reviewed existing evidence on strategies to minimize bias in hiring and recruitment and elevated the most promising ideas for government employers to advance diversity.
Make It Easy: Compare Applicants Directly
To decide which applicants should advance to the next stage of the hiring process, assess one application element at a time across a group of candidates instead of reviewing entire applications in isolation. Ideally, this should be done in batches. For instance, for a batch of five applications with a free-form question, reviewers should assess all five answers in succession to evaluate the quality of each applicant’s response.
The behavioral barrier this strategy helps overcome is our unintentional tendency to use stereotypes. Research shows that evaluators are more likely to rely on stereotypes when reviewing candidates in isolation rather than comparing them to one another. For example, when assessing whether a female employee is ready for a promotion, gender stereotypes may lead her to receive a worse evaluation than men. By directly comparing candidates, hiring managers rely less on intuitive judgments and may find it easier to be more deliberate in their assessment.
Make It Attractive: Craft a Genuine Diversity Statement
To attract a more racially diverse pool of candidates, signal your agency’s genuine commitment to cultivating a diverse and inclusive work culture on recruitment materials. When considering whether to apply for a job, underrepresented job seekers look for signs that an employer truly values diversity.
Evidence from the corporate sector shows promise for addressing this barrier through honest, thoughtfully crafted statements. A Fortune 500 company explicitly signaled its interest in employee diversity in recruitment communications. This resulted in more than double the indicated interest in openings among racial minority candidates, increasing the likelihood that they would apply and get selected for a job.
Like many strategies to advance diversity in hiring, more research is needed to fully determine this intervention’s impact. However, we know that there is a risk of including the standard Equal Employment Opportunity statement alone in a job posting. Research shows that potential applicants may interpret the generic message as a sign that employers are looking for people of color as token hires. Application rates among minority candidates may decrease as a result.
Make It Social: Engage Relevant Messengers
An important concept in behavioral science is that who delivers a message can affect whether people act on the communication or not. Government agencies should engage employees as workplace ambassadors to their alma maters or communities from which they would like more applicants. Leveraging these social connections may welcome underrepresented candidates to apply for open positions.
People tend to act on messages communicated by those who they see as credible, expert, or similar to themselves. Researchers have seen this play out in a study where they found that portraying Black and Hispanic representatives in recruitment materials made Black and Hispanic people view the employer as more attractive.
BIT has also interviewed college students and campus career service professionals to better understand how and why young people seek out jobs. Alums were identified as effective messengers because when students see someone like them working in an organization, they feel more compelled to look up the employer.
Make It Timely: Provide Targeted Support
People from underrepresented groups can face stereotype threat, which is increased anxiety in situations like exams or hiring processes. They are worried, in part, about confirming a stereotype about themselves or their group. As a result, they may underperform.
To counteract this barrier, government agencies can support job seekers of color at key points in the application process. Small changes can have a big impact. A study BIT conducted in the UK with police constabularies found that the greatest drop in minority applicants’ success was during an online, multiple-choice assessment of how they might respond to real situations.
We changed the process by including a few sentences asking applicants to reflect on what makes them a good addition to the police and the positive impact they would have on their community. Test performance improved significantly, closing the gap between minority and non-minority candidates.
Keep Human Behavior in Mind
These are just a few strategies that government agencies can use to help advance diversity. While these alone will not completely solve the problem of disproportionately homogeneous workforces since many of the factors affecting who applies for public jobs and who succeeds in their roles are structural, they can be useful tools for reducing bias at key steps in the hiring process.
We are optimistic that more evidence-based approaches like these will emerge in the future. One way to accelerate that process is for HR departments to try new strategies aimed at increasing diversity and testing to see what works. If you are already an advocate for strategies like these, we hope that you can use the evidence outlined in this article to build a persuasive case for implementing them at your organization—and continue building teams that reflect the diversity and excellence of our communities.