Unconscious Bias: unintentional people preferences

Amanda Salaam, Director, Page Executive and Michael Page Human Resources, interviewed Dan Robertson, an expert on workplace diversity and inclusion management, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Dan is also the Diversity & Inclusion Director at the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, and this interview focuses on the fascinating subject of unconscious bias.

There’s a lot of talk about unconscious bias in business today. In a nutshell, can you sum up what unconscious bias is?

Yes, social psychologists often refer to our unconscious biases as our unintentional people preferences. The key point here is that, unlike conscious forms of prejudice, all of us carry around with us a set of hidden assumptions or biases that unintentionally impact on our behaviours and our decision-making processes. These assumptions or biases are formed in one of three ways: the first is, the attitudes you developed through your social and family environments as you grew up, (conversations you had at home, the kind of school you went to etc.). The second is, through personal experiences with people who are similar to you and people who are different from you. And the third way in which biases develop is, simply through exposure to difference communities via the media. 

So we are not born with a bias?

Whilst biases are universal in the sense that they exist in all cultures and societies, our biases may depend on where you live. So as opposed to being born with a bias, we know that biases are essentially developed over time through social learning.

How do our unconscious biases impact our decision, specifically in relation to recruitment?

There are many different types of biases, but affinity (like me) bias has a significant impact on recruitment decisions. For instance, a 2012 study by the Policy Exchange  found ingrained levels of age based bias in the UK labour market, whilst a 2009 Department for Work and Pensions study found significant levels of ethnic bias amongst UK employers. In this study the researchers sent out 2,961 applications to 987 advertised job vacancies. For each job vacancy they sent three CVs, with essentially identical information. All showed the candidates had been born and educated in the UK. The only significant difference was the candidate’s name. 
A positive result was a call for an interview. The survey showed that people with a white, western sounding name, had to send out an average of nine CVs before getting an interview. However, people with traditional African or Asian sounding names had to send out an average of 16 CVs. That’s a significant difference simply on a person’s name. Other research from a range of global institutions supports the conclusion that businesses are essentially hiring or rejecting talented candidates partly based on name. Thus affinity or ‘like me’ bias is a big factor in hiring decisions, resulting in the ‘mini-me’ effect. Beyond core connect points such as age or ethnicity; we do know that affinity bias covers a wide range of factors such as the university you attended, your social accent, your work style or simple hobbies and interests. 

And how does unconscious bias play out beyond the recruitment process?

Once individuals enter the workplace, affinity bias impacts positively for those who fit with the existing business culture, and negative for those who do not. I would suggest there are three key areas of where leaders need to pay particular attention. 
  • Work allocation: Managers are more likely to assign key projects to individuals within their teams who they have an unconscious affinity with.  
  • Informal sponsorship and feedback: Managers are more likely spend time informally discussing contributions to the team and will focus on development and future work plans. For those where there is little affinity managers are more likely to question past performance. The conversation will be less friendly and even hostile at times.
  • Micro-behaviours: Examples of positive micro-behaviours include positive eye contact and supporting the ideas of a colleague at a team meeting. Examples of negative micro-behaviours include interruption colleagues whilst they share ideas or checking emails whilst they talk.
The collective consequence of these behaviours exaggerates the dynamics of organisational insiders and outsiders. For insiders, the effects on motivation, performance and career progression is positive. For outsider groups the opposite is the case.

Are all groups affected in the same way?

No. Just as there are different levels of conscious bias affecting a range of social groups, some data points to higher of levels of unconscious bias, specifically covering race and disability. We at enei commissioned a piece of research to examine the ‘Paralympic effect’ on our unconscious associations of disabled people. Interesting, whilst social attitudes have changed at the conscious level, we have actually seen an uplift in relation to unconscious disability bias. 

What can business do to eliminate unconscious bias within their recruitment processes?

Generally, it’s easy for people to recognise that there could be unconscious biases at play in their decision. The tricky bit is getting them to recognise they actually have them. From a practical perspective the three things that individuals can do to begin to mitigate their own unconscious biases include the following. 
  1. Own up to the fact that we all have unconscious biases: This is a key step towards bias control.
  2. Test yourself: Professors at Harvard University have developed The Implicit Association Test (IAT). This is designed to measure attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. There are a range of free tests that can be accessed via the Project Implicit website
  3. Expand your work network: Have coffee or lunch with someone difference from you. This helps to build affinity whilst also breaking down stereotypes. 
At the organisational level I would recommend the following:
  1. Review existing person specifications and job descriptions: inherent biases are often built into these and they can act as a barrier to inclusive recruitment. 
  2. Advertising: is the advertisement being placed through media where the widest or most relevant groups are likely to see it?
  3. Talk to key stakeholders: challenge your recruitment agencies and head-hunters when they say, “the (diverse) talent is just not out there”.  
  4. Introducing “blind” decision-making: it’s becoming more common for companies to remove information such as names and universities from application processes. This helps at the initial sifting stage.
  5. Using a rigorous scoring system at interview: this helps to mitigate unconscious biases by measuring the candidate against the criteria and experience you are looking for. Support this by aggregating candidate scores, as this mutes the effect of an assessor with biases.
  6. Organisational fit: recognise the “organisational fit” and the fact that you are more likely to favour people like you. 
  7. Diverse range: have a diverse range of competent people at assessment stage and on interview panels.
We at enei have developed a simple set of checklists designed to help organisations to mitigate the effects of unconscious biases and to promote inclusive recruitment. Using checklists within decision making has been shown to have a positive impact on business outcomes. 
To find out more about enei’s bias control checklists, connect Dan Robertson email: dan.robertson@enei.org.uk or connect on LinkedIn: Dan Robertson, or Twitter: @dan_robertson1. Alternatively, if you would like to know how Michael Page can help your business navigate the complexities of unconscious bias within the recruitment process, contact Amanda Salaam.
Amanda Salaam
T: +44 1932 264 049
M: +447584386166