Unconscious bias in recruiting: putting people before prejudice

Unconscious bias - the instant, implicit judgments of people and situations influenced by our cultural environment, background and personal experience - is a vast subject that I have been passionate about exploring, researching and understanding, for many years now. More and more, I am convinced that, as business leaders and recruitment experts, we need to be more aware of our biases to help us build strong, sustainable and profitable organisations. Over the last few years, the Badenoch & Clark team have been asked to share our knowledge and experience on how unconscious bias impacts companies and employees at both recruitment and promotion stages. From our qualitative research, we now have many case studies demonstrating unwitting, yet deep-rooted biases across all sectors.

Our unconscious bias often springs into action when we have to make quick decisions, have little time or are operating under stress. We have to sort and compartmentalise the billions of pieces of information we are bombarded with every second and simply cannot slowly and logically process all the information we are faced with, so we rely on our mental filtering system to help us. This filter is made up of cultural stereotypes, peer group norms and our previous experiences. For example, when asked to imagine a four-legged furry animal, a Brit would most likely think of a cat or a dog. However, a member of the Maasai tribe might conjure up images of a less friendly, less domesticated, furry animal – maybe a Lion?

When considering how we identify and tackle unconscious bias and protect ourselves from missing a rich and diverse life experience, I believe it is important to avoid creating ‘training’ programmes that dictate how people should think and behave. Recent research from an American University in fact suggest that when diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias training is mandatory, it actually creates more intransigence in employees, totally defeating the purpose of such programmes.

It is important to understand that we all have unconscious bias; it is a normal way to quickly understand and make sense of our world. The issue develops when knee-jerk assessments develop into deep-seated prejudices. Our unconscious biases are directly connected to our upbringing and the cultural and societal norms that we are exposed to from a very early age. So if we have the means, space and open environment to explore and unpick our biases in a more honest and authentic way, I am confident we will benefit from the positivity that comes from embracing difference, rather than the comfort we may draw from being with ‘like-minded’ colleagues.

Many leaders talk about team fit being a vital component when making a job offer. I would agree that, holistically, this principle is indeed relevant; however, we need to safeguard against the ‘hiring in my image’ syndrome that creates teams of people who think, speak and act alike. This is a shortcut to endemic groupthink, which could lead to poor decision making, a reduction in creativity and a culture of unintended compliance and possible discrimination.

To lay the foundations to an open and engaging culture, every organisation and team needs space to challenge and explore difference without fear of retribution. During any discussion, dissenting voices can allow groups to reflect on their position, spark new directions of thinking and, ultimately, lead to better, more robust outcomes. Humans are naturally predisposed to want to fit in, to feel connected and part of something bigger than themselves. So during challenging business meetings, we often pat ourselves on the back when quickly reaching a shared decision, delighted that we are all ‘on the same page’. But could better results emerge if we encouraged alternative perspectives and actively stress-tested views in a curious, open environment?

When it comes to recruitment, being aware of our unconscious bias at every stage of the process will help us make the right appointment - and not just hire the person we like the most. Many of our clients have had incredible experiences challenging their organisational cultural norms when finding new talent. Yet some continue to hire the same type of people, perpetuating team norms and the status quo…. But at what cost? It could be argued that the practice of hiring for team fit is fundamentally flawed as it extinguishes variety and diversity of thought: the most powerful elements in creating better businesses. I suggest we hire people with the same values and spend time - just a mindful moment - to assess whether our judgements are accurate before we take the person out of the recruitment process.

By Bonnie Clarke, Director for Scotland



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