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Unconscious bias is commonplace in the recruitment process

Written by the Editorial Team

Unconscious bias permeates every sector in society, at every level. It exists – in all of us and is as natural as breathing. But it is during the recruitment process that the extent to which our unconscious bias is truly realised.

Research by MIT and the University of Chicago has shown that job applicants with ‘black sounding’ names are less likely to be shortlisted for interview than their ‘white sounding’ peers – even at those companies that actively promote diversity in hiring. Similar trends have been found when it comes to gender.

A study by researchers from Yale University gave scientists who were recruiting for a particular role two versions of the same CV. Both were identical in every way, the only difference being that one had the applicant’s name stated as ‘John’, the other as ‘Jennifer’.

‘John’ was considered to be more experienced and talented and was more likely to be shortlisted for an interview than ‘Jennifer’. More over, ‘John’ was deemed to be worthy of a higher salary than ‘Jennifer’.

Change comes from the top

Despite efforts among organisations to position diversity at the top of the HR agenda, the problem of unconscious bias is widespread.

Indeed, the sluggish pace by which diversity is gaining a place in the boardroom means that the majority of employers will continue to adhere to outdated recruitment practices that will struggle to overcome unconscious bias.

There are, however, examples of organisations that are making efforts to change this.

Deloitte, for instance, recently announced plans to ‘hide’ details of the school or university an applicant attended. It is hoped that this “university blind” approach will remove any incidences of unconscious bias against a candidate who may not have attended a Russell Group university.

Instead, the algorithm used will only take into consideration what Deloitte calls ‘contextual’ information – that which demonstrates the applicant’s potential to do the job in hand. As such, all hiring decisions will be based on capability rather than any preconceived notion of someone’s potential worth.

Positive impact on the bottom line

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace have been widely shown to increase staff engagement levels. This by default creates a more productive (and profitable) organisation – a fact backed up by a plethora of research.

Studies both in the UK and US have revealed that highly engaged businesses generate operating profits three times higher than those that aren’t. So clearly, diversity makes good business sense. But it is much more than that.

Managing bias is not just an essential part of building a diverse and high-performing businesses, it is about creating a talent pool capable of bringing a cross-section of perspectives that can only benefit the organisation.

Overcoming unconscious bias

People don’t just realise they have unconscious bias, nor is it something that we can go around accusing people of either. Rather, we need to create a greater sense of awareness and appreciation for what can be gained from having teams that are made up of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, genders and perspectives.

Unconscious bias is not something that can be eradicated. However, there are ways in which we can mitigate the negative impact that unconscious bias has on our decision-making – mixed interviews panels, increased representation at board level or a ‘blind’ approach à la Deloitte are just a few examples.

Ultimately, overcoming unconscious bias during the decision-making process calls for a shift in mindset. We need to constantly be thinking about how we decide upon the people we hire and asks ourselves some hard questions: Have I hired the right person based on their proven ability or potential? Did I look at this through a gender lens? Does this person give us a greater balanced perspective?