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Building fairer recruitment through D&I policy


In recent years we’ve seen companies dial up their DE&I initiatives – and rightly so. But the impact of those initiatives is hindered when they are not properly implemented. While people support policies that would create a more diverse workplace, we find that they sometimes fail to put them into practice when making selection decisions. We set out to help businesses uncover how this gap between policies and individual hiring decisions happens, understand why and bridge it, so that they may make progress on their DE&I goals.

For many employers, improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is a key priority, with the goal of working towards fairer organisations. But too often hiring and promotion practice does not reflect policy. Implementation must be monitored to ensure DE&I policies are understood and followed, find Emma Levine and David Munguia Gomez

What’s new?

Between 2010 and 2018, the number of Fortune 500 companies with greater than 40% board overall diversity nearly tripled, while almost all FTSE 100 companies now have at least one ethnic minority board member

But many diversity and inclusion initiatives – such as attempts to increase the number of under-represented staff – often fail to deliver tangible results. Why should that be?

Getting D&I right:

Diversity and inclusion: don’t underestimate those quick changes

Diversity, equity and inclusion heads need consistency

HR must realise the difference between fitting in and belonging

Our research – spanning over four years of work and 10,000 surveyed participants – found that a ‘policy-people gap’ can emerge in selection decisions: people choose policies that would increase diversity or create equality yet make specific hiring decisions that are inconsistent with those policies.

We documented this gap among employees in technology occupations, college admissions professionals and lay people. 

With businesses being impelled by investors, customers, employees and regulators to diversify their workforces, leaders urgently need to ensure that hiring decisions are fully aligned with their company-wide policies – in other words, that there is no gap or that it is being bridged.

But this is not an easy challenge to overcome without understanding why the gap occurs.

For this reason, our research goes beyond just identifying what the ‘policy-people’ gap is – it also helps leaders understand its psychological drivers so that they may create effective tools to make progress on their DE&I initiatives.

We also want to shine a light on how different views of fairness can play a role in policy and decision-making. Organisations that want to successfully implement DE&I initiatives must understand how people think about fairness, and when different views of fairness can come into conflict. 

When hiring policies and individual hiring decisions are aligned on the same view of fairness, then organisations stand a better chance of accomplishing their DE&I goals and gaining wider support throughout the organisation. 


Key findings

We set out to document a possible gap between hiring policies and individual decisions about who to hire. 

To do so, we compared people’s choice of hiring policy to their choice of candidate to hire. For example, in one study, employees in the technology industry chose between two policies – one would lead to hiring a well-qualified, male candidate over a marginally less qualified, female candidate, whereas the other policy would hire the female candidate over the male candidate. 

The choice between candidates was simply choosing one of the two candidates to hire. By comparing which policy people chose to which candidate they chose in the individual decision, and making the decisions have practically identical consequences, we could identify a potential gap. We had three main findings.

First, we found robust evidence that decisions about selection policies can diverge from decisions about which specific individuals to select. Across 16 preregistered studies with 10,883 participants, we found that admissions personnel, HR officers, and the general public are more likely to choose a policy that favours lower-scoring, disadvantaged applicants over higher-scoring, advantaged applicants.

But when choosing between individuals, they are more likely to choose the higher-scoring, advantaged applicant. 

Our second finding explains why a gap between selection policies and individual selection decisions exists. We found that when people make individual selection decisions, they prioritise a microjustice standard of fairness (i.e., applying what is fair to that individual).

Microjustice suggests that opportunities should be given in relation to a person’s specific qualities, like their accomplishments or experience.

However, the more abstract nature of determining a policy in decision-making leads people to adopt a different standard of fairness. 

When people make policy decisions, we found that they become less motivated by a microjustice standard of fairness and become more motivated by a macrojustice standard of fairness (i.e., what is fair on a societal level). 

Macrojustice reflects concerns about how opportunities ought to be distributed overall, and whether opportunities are distributed equally between groups. It’s these changing standards of fairness that see decision-makers favour different applicants when making different types of decisions.  

Microjustice vs macrojustice in decision-making

Microjustice – making decisions based on what is fair to that individual

Macrojustice – making decisions based on what is fair on a societal level

In policymaking, people are more motivated by a macrojustice standard of fairness

In individual selection decisions, people favour microjustice

Our third finding was to show how individual decisions can be aligned with policy decisions. 

We found that when decision-makers rely on the same standard of fairness across decisions, the gap between decisions reduces. To test this, we created an intervention where decision-makers learnt about how microjustice and macrojustice could impact their individual decisions, and we asked them to prioritise the macrojustice standard.

Following this transparent intervention, we saw significantly more decision-makers make individual decisions consistent with a policy favouring lower-scoring, disadvantaged applicants – thereby bridging the policy-people gap.

Check out part two of this feature exploring how to turn this research into reality here.


Emma Levine is associate professor of behavioural science and Charles E Merrill Faculty Scholar, University of Chicago Booth School of Business. David Munguia Gomez is a doctoral student in the behavioral science programme at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. 

The full article of the above first appeared in the November/December 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.