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How to see past mitigating circumstances (& hire top talent)

Very few of us enjoy a linear, bump-free path through life. Mitigating circumstances influence what’s happened to a candidate before they apply to your company. But they may have little bearing on the talent, performance, and energy that person can bring moving forward.

  1. The impact of mitigating circumstances
  2. Understanding mitigating circumstances in recruitment
  3. An unbiased way to manage mitigating circumstances

The impact, and prevalence, of mitigating circumstances

Seeing beyond the obvious is an essential skill for HR managers and recruiters to learn. We want — and need — to see past a CV at face value, to understand an applicant’s true potential. The process of recognizing, and then nurturing, that potential can be incredibly rewarding for us, as well.

Mitigating circumstances are just one of the aspects we need to dig deeper on, when assessing a candidate’s application.

What are mitigating circumstances?

Mitigating circumstances are events or situations that derail an individual’s personal or professional pathway. These obstacles can affect their ability to demonstrate potential, too. 

For early talent, it might come down to lower-than-expected grades at university  — the result of revising in cramped home conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s important to acknowledge that mitigating circumstances can hit at any stage of life, however. 

Unexpected or unplanned career breaks. Failure to secure references from a previous position. The illness or death of a loved one or relative. These things can, and do, happen to many of us — mitigating circumstances do not discriminate.

Understanding mitigating circumstances in recruitment

There’s no such thing as a complete list of mitigating circumstances to consider in recruitment. 

That said, the ones we see most often include:

  • Bereavement and loss
  • Mental and physical health conditions (whether short- or long-term)
  • Pregnancy and parenthood (including adoption issues, miscarriage, and stillbirth)
  • Caring responsibilities
  • Being involved with the criminal justice system (whether as a victim, witness or accused)
  • Housing insecurity and homelessness.

The issue is, applicants don’t always feel ready or able to share these experiences in their cover letter or related documentation (who could blame them, really?). So it often comes down to us, as recruiters and hiring managers, to gently tease these insights out.

🗯 The majority of candidates who need us to take their mitigating circumstances into account are profoundly worried that we won’t.

Mitigating circumstances and candidate confidence

Let’s cut to the core of the issue here. The majority of candidates who need us to take their mitigating circumstances into account are profoundly worried that we won’t.

Early-stage talent may feel their chances will be permanently limited by whatever they have been through. While later-stage candidates might have given up on the same opportunities that were open to them before.

Having their situation handled sensitively, and with compassion, can help to rebuild confidence for both groups — and show how important inclusivity is to your company. Even if their application process doesn’t end in a job offer, they can benefit from the experience of being treated with respect and having their potential acknowledged.

But how confident do you feel when handling, and accommodating, mitigating circumstances?

Why mitigating circumstances can make recruiters nervous

Mitigating circumstances can feel like a difficult subject in recruitment, especially for those of us who recognize the value of DEI.

Why? Because we know, deep down, that failing to accommodate mitigating circumstances is just another hurdle stacked up against that candidate. This means that we are not only undermining our professional values but risking the loss of talent, too.

Then there’s the issue of how do we start a discussion about mitigating circumstances. Will it be seen as intrusive, discriminatory, too sensitive?

Lastly, we might also worry about assigning too much weight to mitigating circumstances — allowing bias to sneak in.

🗯 Over-emphasize the positive qualities; self-sacrifice, commitment, care.

How bias influences our view of mitigating circumstances

It’s totally natural to have an emotional response to someone else’s mitigating circumstances — positive or negative. Let’s imagine a candidate’s four-year work hiatus is a result of caring for an alcoholic parent. As recruiters, we may have concerns about relapse or beliefs about the heritability of alcoholism. We could also over-emphasize the positive qualities; self-sacrifice, commitment, care.

Put together, these could easily introduce bias either for or against that candidate. And that bias will likely be exacerbated if we have experienced similar situations ourselves.

An unbiased way to manage mitigating circumstances

There are no certainties in recruitment. But mitigating circumstances can feel like a — particularly grey — grey area. The good news is, having policies, procedures, and systems in place can alleviate our anxiety… and get the best candidates in for interview.

Here’s what that might look like, every step of the way:

Capture mitigating circumstances early in the process

Low university grades, long career breaks, or a string of short job posts could all be red flags in recruitment. Or they could be the (unfair) result of life’s twists and turns. 

Mitigating circumstances help us understand why a candidate should continue past the early stages of screening — despite what it looks like “on paper”. But how effectively does your process capture, and manage, mitigating circumstances today?

If you’re using a traditional screening tool, the answer is likely ‘not very well.’

After all, most automated tools take talent out of the running before they’ve had a chance to explain. And as soon as that candidate’s application has been removed from the shortlist, so too has the opportunity to learn more about what happened and why.

What you end up with is a skewed candidate pool, where only those who’ve had the good luck in life to never encounter extenuating circumstances breakthrough. And how representative is that, really?

Using Headstart to weigh up your options

Traditional recruitment software fails to accommodate mitigating circumstances. That’s why we developed Headstart’s unique “candidate experience and match score” feature instead. 

We know that past performance can indicate future potential — and that education credentials and previous job roles are useful for assessment. But we also know that bad things happen in talented people’s lives. And by capturing mitigating circumstances from the candidate, we can then reweigh their overall suitability and potential score so the setbacks they’ve had are no longer ‘black marks’ or ‘red flags.

Book a Headstart demo

Using Headstart to screen and score all your applicants not only accounts for mitigating circumstances, it also helps you better understand who should progress to interview — mitigating circumstances or not.

Together this helps create fairer hiring practices for all demographics, including those previously disadvantaged by recruitment software: those less physically abled, or neurodiverse job seekers, to name just two. Because, if we’re not careful, the way we select candidates for interviews ends up working against the DEI we’re fighting so hard to achieve.

How to discuss mitigating circumstances in interview

Everyone gets a little nervous around interviews, right? That’s true whether you’re going for your first job, or a job you just really want after 20 years in industry.

Those nerves must be amplified for people coming to interview with extenuating circumstances in their history. How we, as interviewers, handle the conversation will set the tone and — hopefully — allow candidates to open up. 

Saying, “Life is full of ups and downs, isn’t it? Can you tell us about a time in your career/education where you’ve felt held back or disrupted by things out of your control?” shows candidates that we recognize the sensitivity and that we’re going to be respectful.

Or asking, “I see you experienced […] Can you tell me a little about how that affected you?” allows applicants their privacy while allowing us to understand the impact it had on their CV.

Your bias as an interviewer

We touched before on the topic of recruiter bias, and it’s worth expanding here again.

As interviewers and hiring managers, we should be aware of our own experiences and opinions of particular issues. In effect, there’s no “good” way for bias to impact the selection process. You may be interviewing a recent grad who reminds you of your son or daughter and the struggles they’ve gone through. 


There’s no ill-will or insensitivity there, but those mitigating circumstances may still cloud your judgment, causing “like me” bias. Personal stories that hit a little too close to home should prompt us to consider whether we might need to step aside on an interview panel — or have someone else with us, to balance the view.

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To put it in simple terms, we should never define a candidate by something that’s happened to them in the past. 

But talking frankly about the obstacles they’ve overcome allows us to acknowledge and tease out the life lessons, new strengths, and other value-adds they’ve gained as a result. So ignoring mitigating circumstances in recruitment is just as ineffective as screening against them too.

Mitigating circumstances might seem intimidating, but the biggest problem is that they are too often left unaddressed. Taking the time to consider a better approach allows us to create a recruitment strategy that is both compassionate and equitable — one that serves us all.

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