It’s human nature to make quick judgements and snap decisions but these are often informed by unconscious bias. We examine how it can affect hiring managers’ recruitment choices and share some expert advice on how to reduce it.
Unconscious bias refers to the learned assumptions, beliefs or attitudes created through personal experiences. The generalisations made about other people can be positive or negative. But in recruitment, these biases can lead to judgements that can determine the right candidate for a position – based not on their skills, but on the perceived origin of their name, race and/or gender.
The Growth, Equal Opportunities, Migration and Markets (GEMM) project, from the Centre for Social Investigation, found that on average, nearly one in four applicants from a majority group (24%) received a positive response from hiring managers, whereas ethnic minorities with identical CVs needed to send 60% more applications in order to receive any response at all.
Hidden biases affect employer perceptions of competence and effectiveness in hiring, promoting and developing people’s talent, inducing unintentional discrimination, resulting in poor decision-making.
Amrit Sandhar, Founder of The Engagement Coach, explains that we all have unconscious biases based upon previous experiences, but the challenge is many of us are unaware of these assumptions and the behaviours we may display as a result.
“We are drawn to people who are more like us,” he says. “They are less likely to be a threat, and for many of us, this would naturally lead to greater team cohesion. But people who are different to us potentially have a different mindset in their approach to work challenges.” It is this different approach that is crucial as “innovation and creativity are critical to growth for any organisation, but this will not come from like-mindedness.”
Automatic preferences or stereotypes are a major contributor to a lack of workplace diversity. According to a survey by Ciphr, more than a third (36%) of UK adults report experiencing workplace discrimination. A similar number (34%) cite discrimination of some kind as the reason they’ve been refused a job, with age the most common factor at 11%. Gender discrimination, both in the workplace and in being turned down for a role, is the next highest at almost one in 20 respondents.
McKinsey & Company’s Women of Workplace 2022 study – which conducted interviews with women of colour, LGBTQ+ people and those with disabilities – also highlighted many alarming disparities. For example, in senior leadership, only one in four C-suite leaders is female, and only one in 20 is a woman of colour, despite 41% of women of colour wanting to be top executives, compared with 27% of white women.
Nada Kakabadse, Professor of Policy, Governance and Ethics at Henley Business School, believes recruitment practices can “hide unconscious bias” in applicant review, interview or selection stages. “Unconscious bias can sometimes become ingrained in an organisation’s policy structures, norms, work practices and shape the company’s culture if left unchecked,” she stresses.
Diversifying the workforce
Hiring without bias is a crucial issue in recruitment and a whole range of different unconscious biases have been identified that may affect selection. Alongside affinity bias (the unconscious preference for liking those who are similar), there is also status quo bias – where people feel more comfortable with traits of previously hired candidates.
However, unconscious bias doesn’t just affect the diversity of candidates. Jeremy Cross, Chartered Psychologist, says it also has a cultural knock-on effect, “influencing turnover and the quality of life of employees and even leading to a greater incidence of legal challenges as a resultant effect of discrimination”.
Less biased hiring that promotes workforce diversity has multiple broad organisational benefits, such as enhancing company reputation, leading to better talent recruitment, increasing innovation due to multiple perspectives, and ultimately greater profits. Companies leading the way on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are 25%-36% more likely to outperform on profitability and have a 20% higher rate of innovation, according to the World Economic Forum.
Reducing unconscious bias goes beyond the bottom line – to a cause now high on company agendas: the 2022 Annual Corporate Directors Survey by PwC found that the more women directors there are on an organisation’s board, the better the commitment to climate action.
Crucially, greater diversity also contributes to happier workplaces. In September 2022, Accenture was ranked the number one company on Refinitiv’s Diversity and Inclusion Index. Ellyn Shook, Accenture’s Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer, attributes this to the richness of a diverse workforce and the “unique backgrounds, perspectives and experiences” its employees bring.
A standardised approach
To create lasting change, Sandhar says hiring managers need to find ways of anonymising the recruitment process, hiding those characteristics which may lead to discrimination based on biases. “Creating a standardised approach to assess the skills and experiences of candidates, based purely on talent, can allow organisations to hire without contaminating the recruitment process with unconscious bias.”
A study by the Harvard Business Review discusses the importance of unconscious bias training that not only increases awareness, but teaches hiring managers, employers and staff to manage and track their own behaviour. “Not only do employees report heightened awareness of bias, but they also show less bias and prejudice weeks after the training. And women, people of colour and people with disabilities report feeling a greater sense of belonging and respect for their contributions.”
The ‘Prejudice Habit Breaking Intervention’ was an approach used by Dr Patricia Devine, of the University of Wisconsin and her colleagues, in tackling unconscious bias. The team harnessed this technique to train the university’s STEM faculty. The gender version of this intervention caused the science department to have a 15 percentage point increase in hiring women as faculty members.
Dr Christine Naschberger, Professor in Management and Human Resource Management at Audencia Business School, says the next step is the recruitment process is “raising people’s unconscious bias awareness through the provision of training and other mitigation strategies”.
Revising the candidate pool through improved search and advocacy can help to achieve fairer applicant recruitment, as well as reworking job descriptions, eliminating gender, age-related and disability restrictions. “Job descriptions are likely to be embedded with biases by the people who have put them together, completely unaware they may have done so,” comments Sandhar.
The interview process can also be significantly upgraded by using stringent standardised criteria, rather than unstructured interviews, and appropriate training of the interviewers, in addition to having a diverse interview panel. “Feedback from our peers may help us to better understand the limits of our own perception. Discussion within the panel will also help to make a sound decision in terms of candidate selection,” adds Kakabadse.
Ultimately, by incorporating diversity into your company’s core value set, it demonstrates to existing staff and prospective employees that the hiring manager(s) and employer are serious about minimising unconscious bias in recruitment decisions.
For hiring support from one of our specialist consultants, get in touch today.