There is bias in everything, everywhere humans are involved. It’s a plain fact of our lives and there’s a ton of research on the subject. The book Thinking Fast and Slow is a good resource to learn more.

The hiring process can’t escape these biases. What it comes down to is the fact that we tend to hire those who are like us. This happens at an unconscious level. The result is homogeneity in the organization. Since this generally isn’t the best outcome, a lot of effort has gone into human resource practice to try to reduce bias in hiring practices.

Hiring coaches

Let’s think about how biases can play out in coach hiring. If we’re talking about head coaches, then we have to consider who hires them. In the pro game that’s often someone like the club president. At the college level in the US, the Athletic Director often leads the effort. Juniors clubs have club directors. And, of course, head coaches then go on to hire assistant coaches.

How could these individuals be biased in their hiring? Ethnicity and gender are no doubt the ones that jump to mind. Those are the visible ones, after all. There are plenty of other factors, though. Basically, anything that people could have in common can be the basis for bias – for example, similar education, growing up in the same area, or playing the same position.

A set of practices have developed to try to avoid these kind of unconscious hiring tendencies. This article shares some of the recommendations. Basically, the idea is to try to make the comparison of candidates as objective as possible.

Discrimination vs bias

As I noted above, biases are unconscious things. We are not aware of them. When something is a conscious factor for ruling certain types of people in or out, then we’ve moved to the level of discrimination.

Please note that discrimination isn’t inherently malicious. Some of it is based on legal and other requirements. Outside that, it’s often simply based on a lack of information or fallacious reasoning. That doesn’t make it any better or more acceptable, though.

And this goes well beyond the big social factors. Maybe you think setters make better coaches, or that someone must have played at a certain level. We could come up with a long list of potential discriminatory issues.

If you’re in a hiring position and you’re thinking to make candidate decisions based on your views about a certain characteristic, tap the brakes. Take a very hard look at your reasoning because there’s a good chance it has little basis with respect to the capabilities of the specific candidates under consideration. This is particularly true if you base your thinking on generalizations.

Systemic discrimination

Sometimes hiring discrimination isn’t based on the biases or conscious thought processes of the people involved in the moment. It’s instead built into the structure of things.

Let me use the application pool as an example. This is where bias and discrimination can happen even before a single person is involved.

Organizations announce openings in certain ways. They may post the jobs in specific locations. They’ll have a way they word those postings. There are also defined applications methods, and what’s involved in those application processes.

Each aspect of building a candidate pool for a given job has the risk of bias or discrimination. It could be that some types of candidates won’t even find out about the job, or only hear about it in smaller numbers because of the job posting location. It could be that the language of the ad, or the elements of the application process itself, discourage categories of applicants.

Of course every application process discriminates in some way (e.g. citizenship requirements). You simply want to make sure not to exclude people – either overtly based on the “minimum requirements” or because they feel like they don’t qualify based on the “preferred” ones – on the basis of things which don’t really reflect on their ability to do the job.

Discrimination for a cause

I should note that sometimes organizations use discrimination for what they view as positive reasons. These days, diversity is the one that comes up most often. Organizations want to increase (or sustain) diversity, which has demonstrated benefits (generally), so they discriminate against those whose hiring would work against that.

Here’s a a personal example.

I once applied for a college assistant position. My two rounds of interviews went well, and the head coach made it clear I was the leading candidate. The day I expected him to call and offer me the job, though, he instead called to say he couldn’t hire me. His A.D. told him he had to hire a woman. Mine is not the first example of this.

What are the real priorities?

In the situation above, the A.D. had a clear priority, though probably not one that was ever written down. By telling the head coach he had to hire a woman in that role, they said having a woman there was more important than team performance.

Now, you might argue that staff gender composition links to performance. If so, however, you’re circling back to decisions based on generalizations, which is never a good idea. It’s no different than hiring only men for a job that involves a lot of physical labor on the basis that men are stronger when in any given situation you may have a woman who is the best choice.

By the way, I have no problem with that A.D. wanting a woman in that position. I’m all for organizations increasing representation in their staffing in all kinds of ways – especially when it comes to developing people in under-represented categories. Just be honest about it. That’s where things get dicey, though. Colleges are subject to laws against discrimination, so they can’t overtly state they are doing it, no matter how good the cause.

The other issue is how we judge the head coach. If, for discriminatory reasons, you force a coach to hire someone other than the best candidate, then base your assessment of them on the team’s success, you’re doing that coach a disservice. You’ve forced them to hire on a basis of other than the expectations of maximum team success. It isn’t fair to then keep that as the main measuring stick.

Again, organizations can prioritize anything they choose. Those priorities should then also reflect in how we judge those impacted by them, however.

Final thoughts

If we are in a hiring position, we need to be aware of the potential issue of bias and discrimination. It’s in our best interests to keep them from hiring the best people. We also need to be honest about our priorities and consistent in how we use them to judge those we do hire.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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