‘Unconscious Bias’ and the Perils of Prejudiced Recruiting.

Analysis by Steve McNally, Communications Director of Equality Law and Ecom Digital.

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 vexed issue.

If you think this is something of a sideshow to the mainstream cut and thrust of modern day recruitment, 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.

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 judgement about them very quickly, and that judgement 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 occurs 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.”

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.

Rachael Frame, occupational psychologist at Work Group, sees this as a good evolution. “Sometimes in order for this kind of change to take place, organisations need to see that the government is giving clear guidelines,” she says.

“When you look at the organisations that have signed up, there are some serious employers who believe that this is the right thing to be doing.

“As those messages start to seep through, that does start to raise people’s awareness.” Indeed, the organisations signed up include KPMG, Allen and Overy and Microsoft.

But she adds: “If employers are not clear about the capabilities and behaviours they are looking for then they might be screening for completely the wrong things, irrespective of whether somebody put their name or school on the form.”

Smedley balances his study by noting that The Business Compact has also come in for criticism, especially from those who fear US-style rules on what can and can’t be asked at interview. Indeed, he poses the question: “If you cannot even ask someone their name, what is there left?”

McHenry also has some sympathy with this view: “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 good 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 judgement.”

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

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.

“When I work with people who are making decisions they are often reluctant to say ‘this person is in the middle’; they try to pick out things that make them exceptional – but statistically that is very unlikely. People make too much effort to find an exceptional person, and the truth is there are not very many of them.

“So they will fix on something in somebody and exaggerate that characteristic in an effort to justify the selection of an individual.” This, he believes, becomes more prevalent the more senior the vacancy.

Mr Smedley poses a final question that should make all of us think twice.” Can there be such a thing as a necessary bias – interviewers are, after all, looking for someone who will fit in with the culture of an organisation and get on with their colleagues. So could relying on judgement be the best indicator of that?

“When you talk about someone fitting in, it depends on how you define it,” answers Ms Frame. “A lot of the work that we do is helping clients to pin down and understand how they define the culture of their organisation and the types of behaviours that their successful performers typically demonstrate. You can challenge their thinking about what this ‘right fit’ individual actually looks like and pin it down to measurable characteristics.”

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 judgements, and then say ‘actually that’s not a good judgement – here’s a better judgement’.”

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.”

A work in progress, evidently.


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