Is unconscious bias preventing you from appointing better candidates?

15 Sep 2020

Is unconscious bias preventing you from appointing better candidates?

Despite progress on expanding the talent pool, ingrained habits and prejudices still need challenging at every turn.

It’s nearly three decades since psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, argued that our social behaviour is largely influenced by unconscious associations and judgments.

These days, it’s widely accepted that unconscious bias is a habit we all share. We make short-cut assumptions about people, groups and cultures as we navigate a complex world demanding quick reactions.

Of course, when it comes to hiring, those unconscious biases are highly destructive, often preventing highly-talented candidates getting an equal shot at a prized promotion or position. This leads to a leadership limited by lack of diversity of thought, approach and culture. And, as research has shown, by McKinsey, for example, this isn’t just bad for individuals, it’s bad for business too.

They report on a “real relationship between diversity and performance that has persisted over time and across geographies. There are clear and compelling hypotheses for why this relationship persists, including improved access to talent, enhanced decision making and depth of consumer insight, and strengthened employee engagement and license to operate.”

Starting with your own bias

How do you best deal with the effects of unconscious bias? It is not an easy task to identify the bias and implement corrective measures.

It has to start with the hirers actively understanding their own in-built prejudices, through training and awareness programmes. Without that, any further actions to drive the diverse hiring are likely to fail.

Driven from the top, there must be a set of tangible actions, KPIs, transparency, and serious measurable accountability that is the responsibility of the whole executive committee.

Regular reporting to the board on progress should treat diversity and inclusion just like any other item on the agenda, not some afterthought.

Hiring without boundaries

“Hiring without prejudice has to be a well-thought out, systematic process that recognises the subtleties that can create obstacles in the path of the candidate who is not of the so-called norm,” explains Michael Proft, Partner at Odgers Berndtson Germany.

As Iris Bohnet, Professor and author at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, reminds us, rather than trying to alter people, employers should change their processes to limit the opportunity for bias.

This might mean using structured interviews, so every candidate gets the same questions in the same order, and then the answers are evaluated in order in real time.

Of course, we all like to work with people we like, but again the tendency to like the people who are similar to us, and be inclined to hire them, should also be guarded against. You can do this by increasing the number (and type) of people involved in the process.  A group of people means that biases are likely to be cancelled out – a fairer process.

Unconscious bias in your communication

Job ads can be the very first barrier to attract a diverse range of candidates.

Ads and listing should be scrutinised for language and imagery that unconsciously discourages either men or women from applying.

Unconscious bias pervades language and creates a systemic barrier to entry, promotion and continuation of women in the workplace. The Harvard Business Review found that individuals tend to use language to describe people in ways that support traditionally-held stereotypes and beliefs.

For example, the differences in the words describing male and female leaders can be powerful. One study found that women not only had fewer positive descriptors (four to men’s 10), but also had six times more negative descriptors (12 to men’s two).

Top positive female words were ‘compassionate’ and ‘enthusiastic’, while top words for describing men were ‘analytical’ and ‘competent’.

Expanding the pool of talent

“Our job is to help clients specify roles in such a way that ingrained practices and thinking are removed in order to deliver a diverse pool of talented people,” explains Dung Hoang, Principal at Odgers Berndtson.

“We need to shift the discussion to one where the conversation expands, rather than contracts, the pool of potential leaders that might be considered. That is what we call the Unlimited approach.”

So rather than saying, ‘I need someone with fifteen years of retail experience for this role’, why not look at individuals from other fast-paced, customer-facing organisations. Candidates from this wider pool could deliver equally-relevant, broader experience and, importantly, contribute a different perspective.

What happens after hiring is as important as before

Many have pointed out that it’s not enough to simply have all the mechanisms, processes and policies to hire diverse talent. What happens next to those new hires? Are they in an environment that is supportive, empowering and recognises the talents and perspectives they were hired for?

There must be support structures and diversity and inclusion initiatives in place to retain and support the advancement of that talent. A realignment of corporate culture might be necessary. In short, overcoming unconscious bias and other prejudice in hiring is an ongoing project requiring constant attention and action.

If you’d like to discuss any diversity and inclusion issues and how it’s affecting your organisation’s leadership requirements, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.