Overcoming the challenges of Unconscious Bias

Overcoming the challenges of Unconscious Bias

 8 Feb 2019

Call it our instinct, sixth sense, an inner voice or just plain intuition but it’s a powerful force and one that many regularly rely on when making recruiting decisions – whether they realise it or not. 

The key question is how do we challenge those involved in hiring to understand and acknowledge their bias and encourage them instead to make decisions that at times may feel counter-intuitive.

Gut feel can lead to the recruitment of an articulate poor performer with great interpersonal skills over a determined high performer who might be a little shy or initially socially awkward.

And similarly, intuition can lead to the recruitment of mini-me clones, creating of a team with little identity or cognitive diversity, a team full of similar people with similar perspectives, ways of thinking and similar interpretations. 

Here are a some evidenced illustrations of how strong and wide-ranging general bias can be.  And then, most importantly, we offer some practical counter-bias suggestions

Height - Research shows that we are biased towards those who are taller and believe them more competent leaders.  Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling book ‘Blink’ reveals his survey of Fortune 500 companies – the CEO’s were on average 6ft 0 in tall, approximately 2.5 inches taller than the average American man.

About 30% were 6ft 2in tall or more; in comparison only 3.9% of the overall US population is of this height. Similar surveys have uncovered that less than 3% of CEOs were below 5ft 7in height. In fact, 90% of CEOs are of above average height

EthnicityA social experiment sending out identical CVs, one with the name Adam Henton and the other with the name Mohammed Allam, uncovered that Adam was offered 12 interviews, whilst Mohammed only 4.

Gender – Research into the language that women naturally use shows that it might not be as conducive to successful interview performance nor perceived as illustrative of exceptional leadership qualities.  Women tend to use more collaborative language (‘we’ not ‘I’), speak less in mixed groups than men and regularly couch statements instead as questions. 

Similar research shows there is a gender bias detrimental to women aiming at leadership positions.  This is a phenomenon called the “double bind.” Women who demonstrate agentic leadership behaviours are regularly penalised for acting against the traditional female gender role and this often leads to agentic female leaders being un-liked and unpopular. Assertive and directive women are often referred to as ‘bossy’ and ‘bloody difficult’.  Men with similar traits are often championed as ‘charismatic’ and ‘natural leaders’.

And for women leaders with children it gets worse - fathers are generally considered more competent and have better promotion chances. Mothers, on the other hand, are perceived 10% less competent and 15% less dedicated (‘The Motherhood penalty’)

Weight – Those with a higher BMI are perceived in visual studies as ‘less competent as leaders’ than those with a low or mid-range BMI.  In fact in a study simply giving CVs to hiring managers which included a photo, those with a lower BMI were offered an interview significantly more frequently. 

Age – Discriminating against those of a certain age, although illegal of course, is highly prevalent with research revealing reasons such as ‘our culture is energetic and can do’, an older candidate ‘wouldn’t fit in or enjoy working with our young team’ as well as ‘I want someone open minded and keen to learn’.  The unconscious bias occurs as, through experience and association grouping, we assign such traits and essentials as being linked to those whom are younger in age.

So what can we do about it?

Promoting and highlighting the benefits of a diverse team

Unconscious bias training certainly has a place – bringing the unconscious into the conscious mind.  But research regularly shows that it actually doesn’t change opinions and beliefs.  Neuroscientists have uncovered brain regions involved in racial and gender stereotyping and shown that such stereotypes begin to form in early childhood.  In fact UB training can at times be counterproductive. 

What is likely to work better is running training alongside UB programmes that highlights the benefits of having a diverse team.  There is much research in the workplace at Board level and below of the financial impact diverse teams make to the bottom line.  McKinsey finds that less-diverse companies, in both gender and ethnic terms, are 29% likely to be less profitable.  And similar research that shows that diverse teams solve problems faster, are more innovative and spot risk much better. 

If we all understand that a diverse team is beneficial to our business and the bottom line, it makes it much easier to overcome the hard-wired roots of our bias. 

Attracting a Diverse Candidate Pool

Before considering how to tackle unconscious bias, a broad and diverse candidate pool is a good starting point

How employees are portrayed - Website photos, literature and promotional material – Does your business portray a wide diverse range of identities in photos?  Is there is range of ages, are men and women equally featured, and are people of different ethnicities represented?  This is a window into the business and gives candidates an unconscious view about whether they are likely to be successful during a recruitment process and whether they would fit in should be offered a role.

Job Wording - Without realising it we can attract a narrow field of applicants just by the seemingly innocuous wording of job adverts – who would have thought that this phrase ‘we are looking for someone to manage a team’ would attract a higher proportion of male applicants whereas using the phrase ‘we are looking for some to develop a team’ attracted a more even balance of male and female candidates. 

Textio, an augmented writing software company, has researched how different words are received and the responses they illicit.  They don’t attempt to explain why – as often we don’t even know ourselves why we have such reactions – they just provide data showing the impact.  Writing long job descriptions with extensive lists of bulleted requirements elicits less female applications.  Similarly words such as ‘competitive’ and ‘leader’ are viewed as more masculine words whereas ‘support’ and interpersonal’ are viewed as more female.  And further, the word stakeholder apparently "serves as a signal to people of colour that their contributions may not be valued".  TalVista provides a similar service highlighting potentially discouraging words in a job advert in red for amendments to be made.

Referral Schemes – many companies offer monetary reward for employees who recommend others to the business.  But this can perpetuate a current diversity issue as most of us surround ourselves with people similar to us.  Try The Trusted 10 exercise yourself or with a group to illustrate this.  Therefore we tend to recommend people like us who we think will be successful. 

Behaviours at Interview and beyond

Use validated psychometric testing – add objectivity and data to the process. Challenge the unconscious bias of hiring managers by asking for their reasons which are counter to data and evidence of a candidate’s suitability and likely success in a role. We use a fantastic game-based assessment from Arctic Shores, come and chat to us if you’d like to know more.

Why 3 is the magic number – in an article I’ve just written about CIPD research highlighting the inclusion of 3 people in a hiring process to give more objectivity and introduce different perspectives and interpretations but still enable an agile and speedy process. 

Age Range – Match interviewers taking into account their age.  Having interviewers of different ages can be a good foil to age-related unconscious bias.

Reward the Good Ones – the best way in practice to champion a more positive attitude to recruiting diverse teams is to reward and promote those managers and leaders who do it. 


Joanne McTiffin

Tindall Perry Insights



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