Unconscious bias exists in 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 firm but also for their longer term strategy.
Up until now it has been enough that the people they recruit should be “perfectly suited” to the firm and its ambitions. However, with a changing landscape of how business is won, the changing demographic of our client base and the need to potentially deliver legal services in a new way, we need to have a fresh view on what “perfectly suited” actually means.
Future external disruption increases the need for a diverse workforce
In order to secure and retain the best, most diverse talent now and for the future, firms across the globe need to recognise the urgent need to create an inclusive environment. To begin with it is essential that firms work to reduce levels of unconscious bias that may be present in the recruitment process to ensure a diverse group of candidates that become trainees.
Unconscious bias affects hiring decisions from the outset due not simply to negative assumptions, but also to those we see as the predominant group or “visual suspects”.
As a result of these unconscious thoughts, 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 and socio-economic background creates unconscious assumptions around “fit” and their ability to work within our firms.
Without realising we are privileging those in our “in-groups” there is a strong chance that when entering recruitment “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 our 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 than those in our “out-group”.
This sets a high benchmark for any other candidates and it will be hard for those not in our “in-group” 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 issues within law practices admitting that such bias exists even within their own thought processes.
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 and intent. Unconscious bias exists to protect us, to keep us safe and yet in the 21st Century it may well be working against us, making it difficult to create truly inclusive environments with law practices.
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 familiar with their own unconscious biases first and then the biases of others. Often those responsible for the recruitment process are not equipped with the correct techniques to help them address hidden bias.
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 imperative. 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. Challenging what is meant by “fit” and reducing reference to whether the candidate is liked are both good starts. Introducing bias reduction techniques and guidelines at each stage of the process is key. Ensuring partners both accept and adhere to these is often the greatest issue. We advise firms to have the partners draw up such guidelines and to take the lead in introducing them to the process.
Guidelines should include exploring the initial milk round – where do we assume the best future lawyers are found? Will they also be the most innovative, able to reach new potential client groups? Deliver law services in new ways?
Next the assessment centres need to be explored. Who leads? What are the assessors really assessing? What language is acceptable?
Deep discussions around how being a truly inclusive firm will drive sustained success, followed by practical exploration of how bias effects our selection decisions can help pre-partner interview stage.
Of course even if unconscious bias is reduced at selection stages it will mean little unless the firm is committed to developing a truly inclusive environment. Bringing in a more diverse group of trainers will only effect the success of the firm if the right culture is at work.
Written by: Angie Peacock (CEO of the People Development Team)