Conducting a fair recruitment process

Careful adherence to recruitment policies and procedure when hiring staff will help protect against charges of discrimination

October 30, 2008

Employees are the key resource of any education institution. It is therefore crucial that, when selecting prospective employees, institutions operate fair and, above all, effective recruitment procedures. Most institutions will have detailed recruitment policies in place, implemented by appropriately trained staff. Nevertheless, such are the potential risks, both legal and operational, of getting a recruitment process wrong, that it is helpful to consider some of the more general principles that institutions should observe when conducting a recruitment procedure.

Job advertisements

It is unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act, the Race Relations Act and the Disability Discrimination Act to publish or cause to be published a discriminatory job advertisement. In addition, a discriminatory advertisement will increase the risk of discrimination claims from individual applicants. Such claims may be brought under any of the six strands of discrimination (sex, race, disability, age, sexual orientation and religion or belief). Advertisements should therefore avoid any language that may imply that the institution is seeking to recruit a particular category of individual. For example, terms such as “youthful enthusiasm” or “mature” may be regarded as signifying an age bias and should be avoided. Care should also be taken around the use of terms such as “experienced” or “senior”, and institutions should always consider carefully whether such attributes can be justified as necessary for the role. Institutions should also ensure that any express requirements in the job application are specifically linked to the role in question and should be capable of justification if they are challenged, for example, on the basis that they place disabled applicants at a disadvantage.

Institutions should consider carefully where posts should be advertised, both to ensure that they are attracting the widest range of quality candidates and to avoid the risk of potential applicants being unfairly excluded from the recruitment exercise.

Application forms

Institutions should also give careful consideration to the format of application forms. They should consider whether the information that is requested in the form is necessary to allow them to properly assess the suitability of the candidate for shortlisting and that the form does not seek irrelevant information that may expose the institution to a discrimination risk.

Institutions should also be prepared to provide application packs in different formats, if requested. For example, partially sighted applicants may request application forms in audiotape, Braille or large-print format.


To ensure objectivity, and to most effectively identify those candidates who best meet the institution’s requirements for the role, it is important that candidates are shortlisted by reference to the express criteria contained in the proposed job description. Institutions will employ a number of different methods of scoring applicants, but it is suggested that any scoring system should be sufficiently sophisticated to allow the institution to differentiate between a number of candidates who demonstrate a similar level of experience and expertise. For example, it is helpful if shortlisting forms allow the shortlister to identify not just whether an applicant meets a job specification criteria but the extent to which that criteria is met, by applying a score from, say, one to five. This will reduce the likelihood of there being a tie between two or more potential candidates at the shortlisting stage.

It is particularly important that institutions keep a documented record of this scoring process so that they are able to demonstrate, if challenged, that applicants have been selected by reference to objective criteria rather than to any discriminatory factors.

The interview

The issues explored with candidates at interview should also link to the job description and the criteria contained in the advertisement and considered at shortlisting. Again, this will help to ensure that questions are relevant to the suitability of the applicant for the particular role and will reduce the risk of irrelevant and potentially discriminatory issues being discussed. Particular questions that should be avoided at interview are those relating to an applicant’s marital or family status or the applicant’s health, except where the institution is satisfied that this is directly relevant to the particular requirements of the post.

Many employers find that an effective interview technique is to begin by asking open questions and then to drill down by seeking specific and detailed examples of applicants’ experience to assess their suitability.

As at the shortlisting stage, a detailed record should be kept of the interview showing the extent to which the applicant demonstrated that he or she met the requirements of the role.

Offers of employment

It is important to note that a verbal offer of employment made at or following the interview will potentially be legally binding in the same way as a written offer. This may cause difficulties if, for example, the individual making the offer does not have the authority to do so or if it is made before other candidates have been interviewed. It is therefore preferable to ensure that offers are made in writing, at the end of the selection process, and that they are expressly conditional (upon, for example, receipt of acceptable references and any other appropriate pre-employment checks).

While any recruitment process should observe these general principles, it will be important that institutions carefully follow their own recruitment and selection procedures in each case. An objective and carefully documented recruitment process will ensure that any discrimination risks are minimised and will give the institution the best possible chance of identifying the right candidate.

Diane Gilhooley is an HR expert in the education team at Eversheds.

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