How Rare and Herbert Smith Freehills are tackling bias in recruitment

Jan 11, 2023 | Case studies, Diversity

Rare and Herbert Smith Freehills share the process behind their partnership to tackle bias in recruitment and the workplace.

It’s no secret that a diverse workforce measurably improves decision-making, problem solving and innovation. More importantly, it is good for business: the most ethnically diverse executive teams are up to 33 per cent more likely to outperform their peers on profitability. Yet cognitive roadblocks keep getting in our way of recruiting the best, diverse talent. Why?

The problem lies in our individual biases, the automatic preferences we all have hardwired into our neural pathways that cause us to make quick judgements about external stimuli before we even realise it.

These preferences, though harmless in many cases, can have a negative impact in a recruitment and employment context.

For example, an interviewer might feel like they didn’t connect with a particular candidate or wonder whether the candidate is the ‘right fit’, or a manager may fight harder for the promotion of an employee with whom they share more commonalities. This usually stems from having automatic preferences for certain types of candidates over others, rather than due to their ability or potential.  

To make better decisions, we must learn to eliminate bias.

Race and social mobility in graduate recruitment and development

Eliminating bias in graduate recruitment is an ongoing challenge. Studies show AI assessments in graduate recruitment do not help to reduce bias against those from disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds. They also show that online tests tend to negatively disadvantage these groups, as do face-to-face assessment methods.

The effects of recruitment and development bias can also be seen in disparities in employee progression. For example, 2020 data from eight major Financial Services employers showed that almost half of junior employees were from higher socio-economic backgrounds and 11% were independently educated. This rises to 89% and 25% for senior managers and above.

Those from ethnic minority and/or lower socio-economic backgrounds also take longer to progress. In law, for example, those who identify as White progress to partner nearly two years earlier than those from other ethnic groups, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds take a year and a half longer on average to reach partner than their colleagues from higher socio-economic backgrounds. This can create retention issues if employees from ethnic minority and/or low social mobility backgrounds leave to seek progression opportunities elsewhere.

Some interventions do not work

The most common intervention methods are not working. For example, the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) is widely known as a way of measuring people’s bias, however its use of a time metric as a proxy measure for an attitudinal construct (implicit bias) has been criticised by experts as arbitrary, invalid, and unreliable.

In-person training presents a further conundrum: people are told they have bias, but there is often no explanation as to why. This can often make it feel like an accusation.

There is also a lack of education on how bias might play out in different contexts – for example socially vs. at work – and this type of training tends to lack practical solutions. Users do not receive tailored action points and are often left feeling indifferent or helpless.

Hemisphere: a new type of anti-bias training

Award-winning diversity specialist Rare has developed a powerful new anti-bias tool, Hemisphere. Blending videos of real candidates at interview, animations and interactive exercises, the e-training distils over 15 years of experience and knowledge on race and social mobility into approximately one hour of learning.

Hemisphere provides data-driven exercises, based upon context-specific experiences of an organisation’s own people. In addition, users receive confidential, personalised action points as well as targeted follow up content. Managing Director Raph Mokades explains that this “is a very different proposition from generic feel-bad blanket training.”


Rare’s approach has delivered impressive results: more than 80% of initial Hemisphere participants had their biases identified and disrupted following testing.

For Peter Chater, Global Head of Recruitment at Herbert Smith Freehills, one of the most powerful learnings from the training was a video about the differences in body language between candidates of differing heritage:

“I used to be someone that always wanted to have a firm handshake, lots of eye contact and confidence in people I hired for my own team, and when I join interviews with candidates. Hearing how that would be seen as disrespectful in some cultures really made me think about the importance of diversity and inclusion in terms of how the physical actions some cultures take for granted are anathema in others.”

That the training is virtual and can be completed at a time convenient to users has also served to drive engagement:

“Previously the firm had asked graduate interviewers to attend an in-person unconscious bias training session run by an external facilitator. It was good but the way that Hemisphere covers the science in a digestible way, at a time which is convenient for the user, has really moved the dial… It’s a powerful tool, and I can’t recommend it highly enough,” said Chater.

Coupled with powerful, personalised feedback, the shift to Hemisphere has delivered completion rates in excess of 80% across the firm.

Nonetheless, it is a multifaceted approach to diversity to which Chater attributes Herbert Smith Freehills’s ultimate success:

“I flagged Rare’s Contextual Recruitment System earlier…but we have no doubt that it was the combination of both Hemisphere and the Contextual Recruitment System that has helped us go from 25% ethnic minority hires to a consistent 40%, and to three years running of 15% of our graduates eligible for free school meals.”

Rare presented their advice, challenges and experiences at ISE’s EDI Conference.

Read more insight on tackling bias and find out more about ISE events


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