Why is an unconscious bias (UB) a problem for hiring managers? As Harvard Professor, Francesca Gino, puts it “They cause us to make decisions in favour of one person or group to the detriment of others.”
Imagine that a candidate steps into a meeting room and the interviewer unconsciously notes they’re of the same gender, a similar ethnicity and dressed alike. This immediately creates an affinity bias, which is just one of the many biases that we all must confront in the job market.
The fact that UBs exist in our subconscious - and come in several forms - makes it tricky to tackle them. But identifying them is the first step towards promoting a diverse talent pipeline and reducing the negative impact they have on your company’s performance.
Unconscious biases are stereotypes
The brain stereotypes people to help with sensory overload – it sorts individuals with similar traits into groups and then uses this categorisation to make quick judgements. A clear flaw in this process is that people are at risk of being unfairly judged, and since this UB is hardwired into our brains removing it is no small feat.
Unfortunately computers are not immune to UB either, which is hardly surprising since they are programmed by humans. An image search reveals that Google ‘thinks’ 90% of professors are white males, when in truth 25% of professors are women. The big issue here is that biased search results will be seen by people who are unbiased, and these people are then in danger of manifesting it.
Unconscious bias in the workplace
McKinsey reported that culturally diverse companies are 35% more likely to achieve better profits than their competitors, indicating that UB doesn’t only create unfairness, it also harms your company’s performance.
One reason for this is that a team of people from different background will benefit from increased adaptability. The variety of perspectives that are brought to the table will help your company problem solve and it can spark innovation. Plus, promoting diversity and broadening your talent pool are both essential for attracting top talent.
One of the most recognised and widespread forms of prejudice in the workplace is sexism. Research found that when science faculties members were supplied with identical applications, they were more likely to rate the candidates who had male names as better qualified than those which were supposedly female. Let’s not forget than men face sexism too – from a young age they hear phrases such as “man up” which implies they are not acting like a man should. But candidates are subject to unconscious bias because of an array of reasons, including disabilities, class, religion, age and tattoos.
Though some of these other forms of prejudice may be just as common as sexism they may not be as widely acknowledged, and these unrecognised biases have the power to cause more harm to your workforce. Employees can feel isolated by this discrimination which can lead to underperformance and even a higher turnover rate. Consequently, you must always be seeking for the hidden biases at your company.
They exist in many forms
One of the major issues in the combat against UBs is that they cleverly hide themselves in different ways. As we’ve mentioned, everyone is subject to affinity bias which can lead to another bias – the halo effect. Once we’ve identified with someone, we are more likely to favour them and overlook any negative aspects. Alternatively, if a candidate differs from the interviewer a reverse halo effect occurs. This may result in a candidate being dismissed based on factors they cannot change about themselves. What will this do for a company’s diversity? It will create a team of people who all look, think and sound the same, which is no good.
Another type of prejudice that we’re all at risk of is confirmation bias. Have you ever interviewed a candidate who’d turned out to be younger than you’d anticipated? Possibly you doubted whether they would be capable of doing the job and then looked to confirm this preconception. This illustrates how an UB can cause hiring managers to discriminate against a suitable candidate.
So, what can you do to reduce it?
To achieve fairness, you must begin recognising the hidden biases. Then you can introduce bias disrupters such as diverse hiring committees who use an interview template and criteria which reflects what skills a candidate will need. If these are applied consistently this will avoid unfairly comparing candidates.
In a job description, certain words will discreetly convey a gender preference so you must keep it neutral. The American Psychological Association found that “leader” and “competitive” - which are ranked as masculine words - are found more commonly in job descriptions in male-dominated industries. Could these words be deterring females? Now imagine how using the words “physically fit” and “expert” could discourage candidates who do not identify with those words. Therefore, your choice of language in job descriptions could be inhibiting diversity and restricting your talent pool.
View our webinar to find out how you can drive diversity and accessibility through your careers site.
“If you exclude 50% of the talent pool, it’s no wonder you find yourself in a war for talent.” — Theresa J. Whitmarsh
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