Unconscious bias exists in almost every individual, but can perhaps have the most detrimental impact when present amongst HR professionals, who have the greatest responsibility for ensuring that new recruits are the perfect fit, not just for the current requirements of the business but also for the longer term business plan, with their hiring decisions often being the difference between business success and failure.
Needless to say therefore, that up until now it has been enough that the people they recruit should be “perfectly suited” to the organisation and its ambitions. However, with a changing landscape of how we do business meaning that our client base is often becoming increasingly diverse, we need to have a fresh view on what “perfectly suited” actually means today and whether this is still the best option to meet our customers requirements.
Future external disruption increases the need for a diverse workforce
Initially, we need to work with HR to accept the concept that the recruitment strategy in place currently, may need to alter radically in the future. An expediential growth in varying forms of technology, coupled with the most disruptive global economic situation that we have seen in 100 years, are just two examples of the huge impact external factors can have on business success. Talent, Recruiters and HR Professionals must be leading the way to have hiring managers at every level see that with this speed of change comes a need for many new voices, approaches and intelligences. This won’t be found by “fishing from the same old pool”, let alone hiring from it.
In order to secure the best talent now and into the future, organisations across the globe need to recognise the urgent need to create an inclusive environment and this will only happen by understanding and managing the levels of unconscious bias that may be present in the recruitment process to ensure a diverse group of employees.
Unconscious bias affects hiring decisions from the outset due not simply to stereotyping or assumptions, but also to those not in our “in-groups”.
As a result of these unconscious thoughts and our affinity with them or not, we may offer certain candidates ‘privileges’ during the interview process, for example:
1) Their CV can cause us to form both conscious and unconscious (hidden) assumptions around background, culture, nationality, schooling and places worked
2) The way they look and dress, their gender, age, sexuality, ethnic background can create unconscious assumptions around “fit” and their ability to work within our organisation.
Without realising we are doing it for those in our “groups” there is a strong chance that by entering recruitment situations “mindlessly” we will overly focus on the positives and give the candidate a more favourable interview experience. They may have even been recommended by someone already in your “group”, a sure fire way to go straight to the top of the preferred candidates list. From tone of voice, body language and general responses a candidate can feel more welcome, relaxed and accepted, thus enabling them to perform much better at interview.
This sets a high benchmark for any other candidates and it will be hard for those not in those “groups” to match up, even before they enter the interview room.
Breaking down the misconceptions
The key to breaking down these misconceptions and ensuring the best candidates are taken on purely because of their ability rather than any affinity with the interviewer is to reduce unconscious bias. However, this is far easier said than done, with one of the biggest problems for people who are accused of bias being to admit it in the first place; in some circumstances, they may not even be aware of it.
Paul Steven Miller, a law professor at the University of Washington and former commissioner with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, says that the natural reaction is to be defensive. “When someone is accused of discrimination, often people take great offense because it’s an ugly accusation. And yet those same people, when you dive in and peel back the layers, may have biases ingrained that are affecting the decisions they make, the assignments they give, and the promotion or hiring they do.”
The first step in managing the unconscious bias that exists in all of us is to understand its nature where once a quick categorisation of people and situations was important in human evolutionary history, to protect us.
However, in our fast paced, often global, environment this no longer serves us quite so well and there are serious consequences if not managed properly. The challenge is to identify those situations in which our implicit biases contradict our explicit values – these are the ones that individuals, organisations and cultures will likely want to confront and curtail. This sounds simple but if it were, we would not have the diversity issues that we do.
The only way real change can happen in this area, is for all HR professionals and recruiters to become well versed in their own bias and the ones they see around them. Often HR and recruiters are not equipped with the correct techniques to help them address hidden bias, which is far more complex than simply ‘calling it’.
Self-honesty is one of the initial things that needs to be done. The need for recruiters to become honest with themselves about the biases they carry is now urgent. We advise clients to begin by understanding their conscious assumptions and biases and then explore these more deeply. They often reveal hidden biases that add illogical complexity to these assumptions and do not serve the recruitment process or the organisation well.
There are many tips and techniques that can be easily incorporated. However, the crucial need for everyone involved, is to have a good basic understanding of how conscious bias can affect business decisions, especially when left unchecked and hidden behind descriptors such as “Fit” and “Like”, which is like leave a ticking bomb in the talent pipeline.
Consistent self and group challenges around whether, how and who should be driving the latest strategy is essential. Only when decisions are driven by pure organisational need, will the best workers be taken on every time, regardless of their age, race, gender or disability. This undoubtedly takes time, but it is achievable.
Eliminating bias is about driving inclusion
Interaction can help to build this. One thing that research has demonstrated is that the more interaction you have with someone and the better you get to know them, the less likely you are to rely on stereotypes, instead coming to know an individual as a unique person, rather than as a type.
Responding to hidden bias is about creating and maintaining inclusive HR systems. For example, high involvement work practices such as coaching, mentoring and team-based work arrangements may be effective in increasing access and participation of all employee groups.
The fact is that unconscious bias within HR departments will hurt a company’s bottom line. As well as limiting a company’s day-to-day productivity by affecting an employees’ ability to work in teams.
Truly inclusive HR means an understanding of the major impact that great HR practice can have on moving organisational focus from diversity to inclusion, as well as an understanding of unconscious bias and the effect it can have on recruitment decisions and, subsequently, a company’s turnover. As the war for talent continues to intensify, it is vital that HR professionals realise how unconscious bias may be stifling their potential for growth and preventing them from taking on the very best workers.
And herein lies the true challenge – persuading companies that there needs to be a sea change in the way that members of their organisation think, as well as act to align our business cultures with our longer term business plans in an ever changing world where to succeed things can never stay the same.