Mind the Gap: Unconscious Bias

It was an honour to speak at the TM Group conference on ‘Driving and Adapting to Change’ in London in April 2015 and subsequently at some of the regional seminars that concluded on 29 October 2015. One of the key highlights arising from my presentation titled ‘Attracting and Retaining Talent’ was the subsequent discussions with some delegates particularly with regard to firms being more mindful of bias.

It heightened my awareness of the importance of enhancing objectivity in talent management processes in order to address unconscious bias. A key message that appeared to resonate is the fact that everyone is susceptible to unconscious bias which disarms the likely defensiveness that may otherwise be associated with initiatives to promote a more diverse workforce.

Recognising our propensity for unconscious bias is an essential first step to managing unconscious bias effectively.

What is Unconscious Bias?

When we unintentionally automatically make positive or negative judgments about others because of our preferences based on incomplete facts. Consequentially, we unconsciously favour people that are similar to us and overlook others that are different to us with regard to the attraction and retention of talent.

Risks of Unconscious Bias

The risks of unconscious bias should not be underestimated which might include the following:

  • It limits our ability from seeing others that are different from us accurately;
  • It limits our ability from seeing others as individuals rather than primarily as a member of a particular group;
  • It can result in poor decisions particularly in high pressure situations where there are multiple options and swift decisions are required.

Managing Unconscious Bias

A key element of the strategy to manage unconscious bias is the awareness that all of us can be susceptible to unconscious bias. Such awareness does not reinforce a passive approach to diversity or present an excuse for conscious bias but on the contrary it promotes the need for vigilance in hiring and retention decisions.  The awareness of the blind spot of unconscious bias should encourage the embedding of independent ‘second opinions’ in key stages of recruitment and retention decisions.

Some tips that firms may wish to consider to address unconscious bias are as follows:

1. Job Descriptions
The key deliverables of a role should be clearly defined in the job description including the key requirements that a successful candidate should possess. In particular, firms should consider broadening their perspective on what a successful candidate would look like. It is not uncommon for firms to model job descriptions based on predecessors that were successful in the role. Whilst such an approach is appropriate, it is critical that inadvertently there are no unconscious biases in the job description. This is particularly important as job advertisements are based on the job descriptions and any unintended hidden biases may further exacerbate the difficulty of attracting and retaining diverse talent.

A key indicator of the clarity of a job description is the number of key deliverables listed and as a guide between six and eight key deliverables should be appropriate. Likewise, a laundry list of key requirements for a successful candidate might suggest unrealistic expectations and poor definition of the required talent.

One approach to adopt to ensure that the job description has not been defined too narrowly is to involve a colleague or a third party as appropriate that is independent from the business area where the role would operate to obtain a second opinion and enhance objectivity.

2.Short listing  
Proactively enhancing objectivity in selection processes can assist to manage unconscious bias and a key area of focus is the short listing process particularly if external recruitment agencies play a role in filtering candidates.

Some credible commentators have suggested that anonymising application forms and CV’s may address unconscious bias in light of research evidence that indicates that there is a risk that candidates can be treated less favourably based on factors that are not critical to likely success in the role. However, this approach may not be appropriate for all firms particularly as it may be resource intensive and perversely may result in unintended consequences.

Assuming that the key success criteria of a role are properly, clearly and fairly defined, then  it may be feasible to involve someone not directly involved in the hiring department to participate in the short listing process in order to provide a fresh pair of eyes. This could also be an opportunity to introduce a diverse perspective particularly if diversity of the decision makers in the selection process is a key area of development.

3.  Recruitment Agencies
Selection of the right recruitment agencies to participate in the selection processes is a critical success factor to address unconscious bias. Firms should ensure that the agencies that they use have a strong awareness of unconscious bias and that they are vigilant to ensure that they mitigate the negative adverse outcomes of unconscious bias in all their activities.

A key indicator to assess agencies is the profile of candidates that they have successfully sourced for their clients. Agencies that to date have struggled to find diverse talent to support firms that have strong ambitions to have a more diverse workforce particularly at senior levels should be a worrying indicator. This point was highlighted by a friend who was registered at a high profile agency for a senior executive role but was not short listed by them (on an assignment that they managed) but eventually got the job by applying directly to the firm. In that instance, the unconscious bias of the agency potentially could have robbed their client of a talented executive.

4.   Interview Panels
Although interviews are not perfect they are still the most common tool to assess the suitability of potential talent. I am sure with all the big data that it is being collected at present that better tools may arise in the near future to address some of the inherent imperfections in the interview process. In the meantime, there are steps that we can take to optimise hiring decisions. A key starting point is the composition of the selection panel to ensure that it is appropriately balanced and that all panel members are empowered to contribute objectively.

One of the risks with selection panels is the inbuilt hierarchy that may foster group think in selection decisions which is why panel members should have equal status even if they are at different levels within the organisational structure. Furthermore, having someone that is independent from the hiring department on the panel adds another layer of objectivity to ensure that all relevant data is captured and appropriately weighted in the selection interview.

Another critical success factor is the quality and consistency of the questions used to capture data from prospective candidates. It is still surprising that some firms still primarily utilise unstructured questions for interviews and thereafter surprised by the poor selection decisions. Just as it would be unthinkable to hope to obtain actionable insights from customer surveys without any consistent set of questions. Likewise, unstructured interview questions may result in unreliable data to inform selection decisions. The use of consistent well framed questions is a necessary element to achieve reliable and relevant data and thereby reduce the unconscious bias in the selection process.


Could raising awareness of unconscious bias take your firm one step closer to achieving its objective of developing a more diverse workforce?

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