Why Unconscious Bias Matters
Updated: Jul 11
Danielle, an experienced and effective hiring manager in a very competitive sector has just come to the realization that her employee selection process has been flawed from the get go. It dawned on her as she was preparing to conduct performance reviews that the bulk of her team could be described as book smart, quiet and mostly all graduated from the same high school and university. She realized that her team members were very much like her. For several years, she has let her affinity bias sway her towards candidates who reminded her of herself.
Until she looked at the entire group she would have simply said that she had hired several people whom she liked, were well-qualified and would get along well with each other. She was right; however, it was becoming increasingly clear that she was cloning herself and the lack of diversity and similarity of approach and background could be hurting her department in how it innovates and makes progress.
Unconscious or hidden bias is part of the human condition. From an early age, we develop biases which historically and genetically served us to determine whether the stranger in front of us could pose a danger to us or not. According to noted Princeton University researcher Susan Fisk “people easily categorize other people, especially based on race, gender, age, and class. Going beyond such categories, to learn about the individual person, requires motivation.” We are predisposed to bias and in the employment context having the wherewithal to recognize our conscious and unconscious biases and do what it takes to regulate them is what differentiates those who clone themselves in the workplace from those who complement themselves by hiring diverse and complementary teams.
A 2015 report from the highly-acclaimed McKinsey Group titled “Why Diversity Matters” clearly quantified that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform the median in their sector while ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform. This recent data adding to an abundance of evidence to support that diverse teams are more successful, effective and bring greater value to their employer.
Of course, affinity bias is not the only stereotyping that happens in hiring and promoting people. When managers consciously or unconsciously act upon their bias with regards to gender, height, weight, age, marital or parental status, accents, education or personality traits and the list goes on and on, they do themselves, their teams, their employers and ultimately their customers, a great disservice.
Having a bias is very different from being motivated to act upon that bias. Understandably well-intentioned leaders and employers take the required steps to minimize the impact that unconscious or conscious bias has on their hiring and promotion decisions. Here are a few of my favourites:
1. Recognize that unconscious bias is a thing and act. In 2013 the Royal Bank of Canada worked with staff, managers and executives across the country to heighten awareness around bias and how it impacted hiring and promotion decisions. Many employers ensure this conversation is on going within their management ranks and with their HR departments. Ultimately acknowledging our own biases and how it colours our people decisions can be helped along by employers but in the end, I believe it is a very individual act of self awareness and empathy.
2. Render the hiring process as objective as possible recognizing that it is still a largely human exercise prone to bias and judgment. Things like gender neutral job postings, numerically based candidate rating schemes to complement “gut feeling” when scoring resumes, interviews and references should all be given consideration. Having several steps in the hiring and promotion process and multiple individuals involved are some of the measures that have proven highly successful.
3. Removing the names from resumes and replacing them with numbers at the earliest stages of resume screening been proven in study after study to dramatically change how the very same qualifications are perceived. The practice is now followed by many employers. Using highly objective computerized screening tools as part of applicant tracking systems based on keywords and skill matching as offered by HR technology firms, have also proven to be not only increasingly cost-effective but great at neutralizing bias at the front end of the hiring process.
4. Resisting the urge to be unduly swayed by the highly problematic practice of “checking out” candidates via social media. While social media has become a necessary part of an employer’s recruitment strategy in getting the word out and sourcing candidates, it remains highly dubious to assess suitability. Such practices are not only questionable in several ways, they are ripe for your conscious and unconscious bias to get in the way of sourcing qualified candidates. Time proven, reliable, not to mention increasingly inexpensive assessment tools such as psychometric testing and thorough background checks completed by third parties, offer valid and legal ways to support hiring and promotion decisions.
In Danielle’s case there was no malice in her acting on her implicit bias. Unlike some others she was not openly discriminating on a specific group or trait but simply unaware of how her bias was quietly influencing her decisions. She has since made a very conscious effort to be aware of her stereotypes and biases and substantially adjusted her process accordingly. I too have learned to acknowledge and work with my bias…that left-handed, glasses wearing Montreal Canadien’s fans are all really nice people! Go Habs.
Want to know more about how to work with your unconscious bias when doing social recruiting? I will be joining Alongside's Emily Brennan for a webinar on the topic Wednesday April 19th at 1pm ET.
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