Unconscious Bias: Check Yourself

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You’re interviewing candidates for a new job. Three interview well but you finally settle on the person you think is most suited for the job: James. But looking a little closer - why do you think that person is best for the job? Is it a coincidence that you and James have the same educational background, or that you both support the same sports team? What about the fact that James was the only male candidate and the rest of the office is predominantly men – were you unconsciously seeing his gender as part of the reason he ‘suited’ the job and would fit in?

We all have unconscious biases but it’s not easy to admit that our decisions may be based on these, instead of the clear evidence in front of us. But as an employer making important staffing decisions, you need to make sure to check yourself and address any biases that may be influencing your choices.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias happens when our brains make snap judgements, categorising people based on our perceived conceived assumptions which could relate to: gender, age, disability, sexuality and social status to name a few. These assumptions often occur when we are faced with groups or individuals from outside our own experiences, and who we may have a preconceived stereotype of. It may be that someone will favour another who they have similarities with, for example a similar educational background or race - sometimes this is referred to as ‘recruiting in your image’ in the workplace. Unconscious bias is far more common than an explicit conscious bias, and often it contradicts with the values we see in ourselves.

Last year political analysist Professor Robert E Kelly was famously being interviewed live by the BBC from his home, when his young children upstaged him by crashing into the room in the background. Many people assumed the woman who then hurriedly ushered them out was the children’s nanny when in fact she was their mother. A race row ensued with many claiming that the assumption that the Asian woman must have been the white Professor’s nanny, not wife, was indicative of “systemic racism”. This same issue could be problematic in a working environment, with people forming certain assumptions of an individual based on stereotypes about those groups.

We may consider ourselves to be fair-minded and non-judgemental, but in reality research has found that unconscious bias has a significant influence in recruitment, promotion and performance management. A 2012 study asked staff to review a number of applications that were all identical apart from the gender of the applicant. Science departments were found more likely to rate male candidates higher than female, select the male candidates over their female counterparts and then finally to give the male candidates higher salaries.

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What can employers do?

In order to prevent unconscious bias, you must first admit that you might have it. It may be that you are involved in handling promotions and you select a candidate of a certain sex because your previous experience of recruits in that role have all been of that sex. Once you recognise that this may be a bias, it makes it much easier to revaluate the evidence without that influence clouding your judgement.

Across your business it is important that recruitment, promotion and performance management are seen as fair and based on merit and the facts. One way to ensure this is to make sure all policies are transparent and that staff are set the same objectives to others at their level, then measured on quantifiable results. Regarding recruitment, a clear person specification should be defined and it may be useful to have a set list of questions with this in mind, scoring candidates on how they meet each competence based on examples or evidence they give.

Many employees have robust equal opportunities and discrimination policies, however it is important to actively champion diversity in a visible way – rather than just rely on your anti-discriminatory policies.

One way that employers can do this is to implement positive action.

The Equality Act 2010 specifically provides for employers to put into practice ‘positive action’ when recruiting and promoting employees. This is not the same thing as positive discrimination. Positive discrimination would be where a candidate would be promoted on the sole basis that they are underrepresented or disadvantaged, without consideration to merit.

Positive action makes employers actively regard any characteristic that could put a candidate at a disadvantage in a tie break scenario. For example, a woman and a man may both have interviewed for the same job. They are both equally qualified and regarded by the panel. This is when subjective reasons, and unconscious bias may come into play. Positive action would compel the panel to consciously consider whether one candidate is under represented or adversely disadvantaged in the workforce. This is a good idea to bring the issue to the forefront of employers’ minds.

There are many training programs available to highlight people’s biases and create awareness. Since unconscious bias affects all of us in the workplace, it would be beneficial for all staff to understand the issues. It may also help boost staff morale if they believe the company is taking diversity and meritocracy seriously.

Benefits of a diverse workplace

Perceived discrimination is how people feel when they believe they are being discriminated against, and research has proven that this can affect their performance, including their commitment to the role and job satisfaction.

It is well known that diversity in the workplace is beneficial to organisations. Different employees bring a range of valuable experiences and skills, which can complement each other and encourage different opinions and methods. A mixed group from a variety of backgrounds is more likely to suggest a variety of solutions to a problem or goal and help foster new ideas.

By identifying our biases and working hard to address them, you will be well on your way to creating a more diverse, happier working environment where opportunity is based on merit and your workforce is as productive as it can be.

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