The popular animated hero has been cut from fire service hiring campaigns, as employers struggle with unconscious bias in recruitment.
Fireman Sam, the popular children’s television hero, has been axed from hiring campaigns by one of Britain’s Fire services. Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue service announced this week that the character would be removed from future promotions.
Now, you’re probably thinking – “who cares?” And, for the most part, you would be right to think that way.
But the coverage has taken a more insidious tone. Many articles have focused in on language used by the fire department. Chief fire officer Les Britzman had explained the decision in these terms: “no-one in the country is called fireman any more. It’s firefighter. That’s their rank.” Consequently, much of the coverage has implied that ‘Sam was sacked’ as part of a wider gender war in the workplace.
So let’s take a look at recruitment bias. And – as daft as it sounds – we’ll explain why changing mascots is not as big an overreaction as it sounds.
How unconscious bias affects your recruitment bottom line
In reality, the service simply wanted to refresh its message and marketing.
Fireman Sam, who debuted in 1987, is hardly cutting edge these days. So instead, he will be replaced by a group of fire extinguisher mascots – called Filbert, Freddy, and Penelope.
So, while nobody should be accusing the fire service of being sexist for having a male mascot, it does make sense to update the branding.
Why? Because the unconscious bias is received and processed in an equally unconscious fashion.
In other words: a very specific candidate figure in recruitment adverts will create an unconscious bias in which candidates complete their applications.
Job-seeking can be a strenuous and stressful process. It is natural that many job-seekers get good at fine-tuning their activities to maximise the chances of success.
As such, candidates are constantly working to extract clues from jobs listings.
These are clues that will tell them if they qualify for the job. They are clues that will help decide whether the job will match their own, personal requirements. And, lastly, they are looking for clues that will help them to present as an ideal candidate in the interview stage.
If the ideal candidate is consistently being shown as someone from one very specific demographic, all of the potential applicants from outlying demographics risk ruling themselves out of the process.
And, when that “candidate archetype” excludes majority segments of the workforce, you’re going to struggle to recruit.
The Myth and mania of unconscious bias in recruitment
It is easy to be polarised on the matter. It is never pleasant to be accused of being unfair, or of excluding certain people from a process. As recruiters, we also do not want to see our clients unfairly branded as prejudiced employers. If that appears to be the argument being made, then it is very easy to stand up to it.
But really we ought to be considering how our choice of language and the way we present our listings may cause candidates to be prejudiced against – and even exclude – themselves.
At a time when candidates are in vanishingly small supply, it simply makes more hiring sense to play an even-handed approach to attracting candidates.