You need to tackle your unconscious bias before it ruins your company

We all have deeply ingrained subtle biases. It often can’t be avoided, but it can be managed.

By Lorcan Nyhan Head of Careers, Communications Clinic

Meet Tengai, a 16-inch disembodied head. Tengai is an android designed to mimic our speech patterns, ask a series of interview questions and then provide a transcript of a candidate’s answers to an employer.

Currently being trialed by a Swedish recruitment firm, the eventual aim is that Tengai will be able to make recruitment decisions without any human involvement.

The intention is to help employers overcome the impact of unconscious bias in recruiting – a laudable goal. But you don’t need a million-dollar robot to fix unconscious bias in your recruitment.

First, it’s important to understand exactly what we mean by unconscious bias. Also known as implicit bias, these are learned stereotypes or preconceived ideas about a group that subconsciously influence how we perceive and ultimately judge them.

The concept was popularised by author Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book Blink where Gladwell discusses Harvard’s Project Implicit. This is a project, run by three psychologists since 1998, based on a simple Implicit Association Test designed to measure people’s instinctive reactions to images and words.

The results show the majority of Americans are quicker to associate images of white people with positive words and images of black people with negative words. And that 90–95 percent of respondents harbour the “roots of unconscious prejudice.” Gladwell himself, who is half Jamaican, found that he had a “moderate white bias”. 

These results are borne out in dozens of other studies that show hidden bias around race can be a significant success factor in recruitment processes. White job applicants have been found in studies to be over 70% more successful than applicants from ethnic minorities. 

These are American studies but they illustrate a global truth; unconscious biases exist and impact our decisions.

In my work, I see managers who are biased against certain accents or clothing choices. I see managers who have a bias in favour of candidates who have followed their path; went to the same school, the same college or trained in the same firm. I see managers biased towards those they find personable or likeable.

All of these can lead to the same result: a less diverse and therefore less effective workforce where most employees look, sound and think the same way. And a diverse workforce is ultimately more profitable and productive.

Numerous studies back this up. For example a study of 1700 companies across eight countries found those with more diverse management teams have revenues 19% higher than average. 

We all have deeply ingrained subtle biases. Nothing innately wrong with that. In fact it often can’t be avoided. But it can be managed.

Diversity in hiring practice makes business sense, and therefore every hiring manager has a duty to be aware of the steps they must take to avoid being impacted. 

The first step is to acknowledge they exist. The second is to take the further necessary steps to ensure they don’t influence essential hiring decisions.

Define what good looks like

When starting a hiring process it is essential that all the key decision-makers meet and define, in concrete terms, what exactly the ideal candidate needs to prove in order to be hired.

This sounds simple but it is often overlooked and replaced with the more nebulous notion of “I’ll know it when I see it”. You won’t “know it when you see it” unless you know what are looking for. 

When you go in with a blank sheet or a vague idea of what you need, you are opening yourself up to being influenced by your own bias. 

Have a written list of priorities for the role. This list should be as specific as possible. It can’t be a list of vague buzzwords. It needs to be based on tangible and clear responsibilities or outcomes.

You are not simply looking for someone with good communication skills. You are looking for someone who can consistently give an impressive and persuasive presentations to win over potential clients.

You are not just looking for someone with strategic leadership potential. You are looking for someone who has experience in successfully turning an underperforming team of computer analysts around and maintaining new higher performance levels.

Rank your priorities

The role may contain 15 important responsibilities, but all can’t be most important. For example, you might judge it important that a new computer programmer is likeable and personable, but is that as important as their technical ability? 

Agreeing upon a clear and written list takes the power of biases away. If you know that, objectively, a candidate’s ability to solve complex problems is the most important success parameter, then it becomes more difficult to justify giving the role to the person whose accent, name or background you, subconsciously, prefer. 

Then structure each interview so that every candidate is fairly assessed against their ability to fulfil these responsibilities.

You need to keep the question type and order consistent from interview to interview, you need to question thoroughly to uncover specific and relevant examples of past performance and you need probe forensically to ensure that each example is clear and authentic.

Test your gut instincts and the opinions of your colleagues with probing questions

Our unconscious biases often reveal themselves as doubts, worries or gut instincts about a candidate. It is at this decision point that you need to be most aware and wary of biases rearing their distracting heads. 

Post interview statements or thoughts like the following should act as alarm bells;

  • I wonder how well they will settle in with the team?
  • I’m not sure if clients will warm to them?
  • A strong candidate, but are they right for our culture?

The way to assess whether or not this is a bias or a genuine concern is to ask yourself, or your colleagues, probing questions to expand and clarify the thought.

If you can’t vocalise an answer that holds up to logical scrutiny then it is likely a bias is at play and that thought, statement or viewpoint should be discarded. 

For example, if you are impressed by a candidate but find yourself doubting they will fit in with your culture, ask yourself why you think that?

You might have a good answer; “they were clear that they value flexible working hours and we’re not at the point where we can offer that flexibility”, for instance. But if you don’t – discount it.

Addressing bias in your recruitment process is essential to the success of your team or company. But you don’t need an expensive android to do it, you need a structured interview process, and expertly trained interviewers.

Lorcan Nyhan is a senior consultant and the head of careers at The Communications Clinic.

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