3 Ways to Combat Unconscious Bias

06 February 2019 by Muiris O’Carroll
blog author

Blog written by Muiris O’Carroll, Talent Assessment Consultant at Acre Frameworks.

How accurate is our perception of reality? We like to think that we interpret the world objectively and that our decisions and actions are our own and free from influence. The inconvenient truth is our background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context can have an impact on our decisions and actions without us realizing.

This process, known as unconscious bias happens when our brain makes incredibly quick judgements and assessments of people and situations without us realizing. Brain scans reveal that we make these rapid unconscious judgements in less than a fifth of a second, by the time the conscious objective part of our brain kicks in after about half a second it is too late to stop these judgments from being formed. We then simply reshape the facts to justify what our unconscious has already decided.

Unconscious bias can take many forms, one of the most common is similarity bias. This effectively means that we tend to favor people who we perceive as being like us i.e. part of our in-group. Depending on the context we have many different in-groups that we subconsciously resonate with, these in-groups can be based on gender, age, nationality, taste in music or preference for pineapple on pizza to name just a few, the list of potential in-groups is endless.

Unconscious bias becomes an issue when the decisions and actions we take have consequences for other people. An interesting example of unconscious bias can be seen in Orchestra selection. In the late 1970’s the top five orchestras in the U.S had fewer than 5% women. One might have naively assumed that men were naturally superior musicians. With orchestras comprising of mostly men so too were orchestra judging panels. Many began to suspect unconscious gender bias at play, so in the 1980’s blind auditions were introduced into orchestra selection. Candidates were situated on a stage behind a screen to play for a jury that cannot see them, (this concept was later adapted to form the premise of the hugely popular TV show “The Voice”).

The introduction of blind auditions had a dramatic impact on orchestra selection, that single intervention made it 50% more likely that a woman would advance to the next stage. Amusingly, the aspiring musicians were instructed to remove their footwear before coming on stage as the telltale sound of high heels was enough to re-ignite the unconscious gender bias.

Unconscious bias is also prevalent in recruitment. In a 2010 study, researchers in Sheffield sent out 3000 CV’s for real jobs across cities in the UK. They put a typical Anglo-Saxon sounding name at the top of 1000 of them, an Asian name at the top of 1000 and an African name at the top of the remaining 1,000. The CV’s were identical only the name varied. The researchers found that the white name typically got called to interview after 9 applications. The African or Asian names typically got called to interview after 16 applications. A similar study was carried out where male and female names were placed on the same CV. Not only was the male CV rated as more competent, employable and likely to respond well to training, the assessors also offered a 15% higher starting salary (Zschirnt, E., & Ruedin, D., 2016).

So, what can be done to prevent unconscious bias? First of all, we have to acknowledge that we are all human and we all have our own unique unconscious biases. There is no point beating ourselves up, unconscious bias is essentially a mental short-cut the brain uses to deal with the constant high volume of data it has to interpret.

I come from an Organizational Psychology background so I’m very familiar with the concept of unconscious bias. When I’m searching for candidates, I pride myself on remaining as objective as possible. That said, I’m an Irish person working in the UK health and safety recruitment industry. When I am conducting a search, names like Murphy or O’Connor tend to catch my attention. No one is immune to unconscious bias. So, what can be done about it?

Let’s examine the three main stages of the recruitment cycle and see what strategies can be used to mitigate unconscious bias.

1. Job Advertising

Research has shown that the wording used in job adverts can dramatically influence the number of men and women that apply. Words like “exhaustive”, “enforcement” and “fearless” can be subconsciously more enticing to male applicants. Similarly, words and phrases like “transparent”, “catalyst” and “in touch with” can be subconsciously more appealing to female applicants.

When posting job ads, perhaps take a minute to examine the words you use, are there any gender specific words or phrases? Perhaps when you are asking a colleague to proof read your job ad also ask them whether they feel there are any gender specific words or phrases contained in the ad. The Australian software company Atlassian decided to re-word their job advertisements, taking a gender-neutral wording approach. Over the course of a year the company increased the number of women being hired for technical positions by 80%.

2. Candidate Selection

Many top companies such as Deloitte and Ernst & Young have implemented “blind screening”, a process by which a candidate’s name and address are removed from their CV before it is reviewed. This reduces the potential for unconscious bias based on gender, ethnicity, nationality and socioeconomic status.

If blind screening is impractical within your given situation, what can you do? To gain insight into where your own potential bias may lay you could complete the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Alternatively, you could take time to reflect and ask yourself, what characteristics do you love or hate to see in people? Are these characteristics affecting your overall evaluation of that person? Do you dislike arrogance? Where one person perceives arrogance, another sees social confidence. Is that person pessimistic or just realistic? Like beauty, bias is in the eye of the beholder.

If you are involved in a hiring decision and you are reviewing a candidate’s CV or interviewing them, it might help to ask yourself the question, “will this affect him or her from doing their job effectively?”. For example, you might think this candidate has a strong accent, “will this affect him or her from doing their job effectively?”. By constantly asking this question we are shifting our perception from the subjective to the objective, from the unconscious to the conscious.

3. Candidate Presentation

When recruitment consultants or interviewers present a set of candidates to a hiring manager, they usually present CV’s plus a description of the candidates non-technical/soft skills e.g. communication or teamwork. The description of a candidate’s non-technical skills is critical; if the consultant/interviewer has a biased opinion – either positive or negative – it can be passed on to the client. Unconscious bias it seems can be contagious.

Is the candidate you are putting forward really an effective communicator or is that 10-minute chat you had with him/her post interview about your shared love of Arsenal FC clouding your judgement? Even if you think you managed to stay objective and you examined the candidate’s non-technical skills, how can you be sure? A person’s CV can be presented with a certain degree of objectivity, but how can one present a person’s non-technical skills objectively?

This is where personality assessments can be particularly effective. Personality assessments provide an objective assessment of a candidate’s behavioral preferences and provide a non-biased insight into a candidate’s non-technical skills. My role within Acre involves sourcing health and safety candidates and also administering our in-house non-technical personality-based assessment (Acre Frameworks) which is created specifically to enhance the health and safety profession. My role gives me a unique insight into both the subjective (when I am searching for candidates) and the objective (when I am analyzing a candidate’s Acre Frameworks assessment report).

Acre Frameworks gives me peace of mind when I’m describing a candidate’s non-technical skills to a client. I take solace in the knowledge that the information I am presenting is objective and is not tainted by my own unconscious bias.

If you are a hiring manager or health and safety professional thinking of expanding your team and would like non-biased, objective data on your interviewee’s non-technical skills, please feel free to reach out. One of our psychometric assessment experts from our gender balanced, multi-cultural Acre Frameworks team will be happy to give you more details.

Muiris O’Carroll is a Talent Assessment Consultant at Acre Frameworks, contact him today at muiris.ocarroll@acre.com for further information or for any questions you may have.