‘Unconscious Bias’ in recruitment

You’re biased. And I am too. In fact, everyone is biased. You’re not a human being if you don’t naturally ‘pre-judge’ in some way. So it’s hardly surprising that ‘Unconscious Bias’ and how it can affect the recruitment process is becoming an increasingly important issue.

If you think this is something of an overstatement, then consider this: how many recruiters in your organisation genuinely believe that they can identify the perfect candidate the moment they set eyes on them (or even from a glance of their CV)? Quite a few, right? But should we be surprised? As animals, we all find it easier to relate to people who we believe share similar characteristics and values to ourselves. It’s then just a small but dangerous step to make assumptions about the wider similarities they might share. And that is where problems of prejudice can translate into seriously stereotypical recruitment – and all the attendant perils of group thinking.

Categorising candidates

A recent and fascinating article by Tim Smedley in the FT showed how ‘current’ the phenomena of ‘Unconscious Bias’ really is. The award-winning business journalist quoted Robert McHenry, executive chairman and business psychology consultant at OPP, on the prevalence of unconscious bias: “When you meet someone you make a judgment about them very quickly, and that judgment is based on categories that you have already stored and built up. So in a sense we pre-judge everybody and when we meet them we try to fit them into a category that we already know. We do that very quickly and therefore without awareness.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Mr McHenry believes there is “actually a lot to be said” for a manager’s gut instinct. However, as Tim Smedley explains, the dangers occur when instinct based on experience gives way to prejudice. Or, as McHenry says: “Prejudice occurs where you haven’t had much experience with someone from a particular category, so you just make it up. You aren’t using knowledge or experience or facts. But if you teach people the facts, you eliminate a lot of the bias that comes from ignorance.”

Steps to remove ‘unconscious bias’ from recruitment

Smedley, a regular contributor to the CIPD’s People Management magazine, has an intimate knowledge of the UK workplace and goes on to note that April marked the first anniversary of the UK government’s Social Mobility Strategy, which aims to ensure everyone has a fair opportunity to fulfil their potential, regardless of background.

As an integral part of this, the Office for the Deputy Prime Minister launched the “Business Compact”, which has the declared aim of eradicating bias from recruitment decisions. Businesses have been invited to sign up to an agreement to “ensure that recruitment processes don’t allow people to be inadvertently screened out because they went to the wrong school or come from a different ethnic group”.

As Smedley stresses, this, “could include increased use of name-blank and school-blank applications where appropriate”. The idea of blanks on an application is that if you know nothing of the applicant other than their skills and experience, bias is less likely to affect the selection process.

Organisations signed up include KPMG, Allen and Overy and Microsoft. But McHenry also calls for balance and common sense in all of this: “I have a company in the US where it really is very difficult. I was interviewing somebody for a job in California and I was given by the lawyer a very long list of things I couldn’t touch on at interview. I believe that is the wrong direction.”

Coming from Northern Ireland, he has witnessed the impact of removing names and religious background from civil service applications to combat sectarianism. “But people could still use other clues, such as the district of Belfast etc,” he says.

“If you don’t give people information they will actually work very hard to find the information that allows them to categorise. The less solid information you give people, the more they have to guess, and the more likely they are to put somebody in the wrong category and make the wrong judgment.”

In fact, McHenry believes that some level of bias in recruitment is based on more than simple discrimination.

Reducing stereotypes

Some recruiters see positive traits in candidates out of a willingness for them to be right for the post, to the point where they ignore evidence to the contrary. Most characteristics are distributed over a U-shaped curve and most people are in the middle of that, says McHenry.

Recruitment freed of decisions based on bias, yet without going down the hand-wringing route of not asking anyone anything, is an achievable goal, argues McHenry.

He recommends the recruiters he works with to try simple exercises, “such as using a check-list of adjectives, giving someone a category and asking them to choose 10 adjectives that fit the people in that category. Those are ways that people can share their biases and talk about them. You expose people’s bias and judgments, and then say ‘actually that’s not a good judgment – here’s a better judgment’.”

The recruitment process could, therefore, be coming to terms with the problem. “The more people who recognise and understand the biases they have, then the more likely they are to start managing them,” says Ms Frame.

“But no employer will completely eradicate it because that would involve fundamental changes in human behaviour.”

Something we should all be very conscious of.

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