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How can unconscious bias be avoided in recruitment?
When an unkempt, middle-aged unemployed charity worker took to Britain’s Got Talent stage back in 2009, the audience feared the worst. Some sniggered and Simon Cowell rolled his eyes, as the contestant revealed she lived alone with her cat and had never been kissed. Was this going to be one of those uncomfortably cruel TV-taken show moments?
When Susan Boyle began to sing “I Dreamed a Dream”, the theatre erupted in spontaneous appreciation, and a star was born. Yet, almost everyone in the arena had written her off due to her appearance and awkward demeanour.
Maybe it was this episode which inspired the TV talent show, The Voice, where the judges blindly make their decisions based on the singing alone.
Either way, the lesson was clear – we have obvious unconscious biases. We judge people long before we know their skills and talents.
Do we do the same thing when we recruit people?
What is unconscious bias?
Acas, the independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service describes how unconscious bias occurs:
“How a person thinks can depend on their life experiences and sometimes they have beliefs and views about other people that might not be right or reasonable.
This is known as ‘unconscious bias’ and includes when a person thinks:
better of someone because they believe they’re alike
less of someone because that person is different to them, for example, they might be of a different race, religion or age.
Everyone can think in a way that involves unconscious bias at some point, but it’s important to be aware of it and not let it affect behaviour or decisions.”
Unconscious bias in recruitment
How much of an issue is bias in recruitment?
Research by People HR found that one of the biggest HR mistakes the auditors keep finding is subconscious bias within the recruitment process.
For example, a Yale University study found that male and female scientists, both trained to be objective, were more likely to hire men, consider them more competent than women, and pay them $4,000 more per year than women.
Why does this happen?
Among the reasons outlined by Behavioural Scientist Dr Pragya Agarwal are:
Confirmation Bias. This is the tendency to search for information during the interview process that confirms your pre-existing beliefs. For instance, if you have already made an implicit judgment based on a candidate’s resume or appearance that they are the best candidate for the job, you are likely to focus on information during the interview that confirms this belief. Or, if you have certain beliefs that a particular nationality, gender or ethnic group, or even a particular University is the best, then you are likely to seek out that information that confirms those beliefs and hence skew your judgment.
Personal Similarity Bias. We tend to favour people who are most similar to us. We attribute good personality traits to people whom we can relate to. So, if an interviewee is similar to yourself, or acts in a certain way that reminds you of a person you like, you are more likely to be inclined towards hiring them. When you have things in common with a candidate, you may prefer that candidate over one with whom you do not share those types of similarities, regardless of who is better suited for the job.
One way to lessen unconscious bias is to remove all personal details from a CV. Indeed, at Harvey John, we recently worked on a number of exclusive assignments where the clients asked that the names of the candidates be removed prior to submission to assist with eliminating unconscious bias.
Harvey John Director, Alex Mann, says; “I’ve always felt that removing all details from a CV (name, sex, age, ethnicity, name of academic institution etc.) is a great way to remove bias from the initial screening process and ensure applications are treated fairly.
Personally, I don’t think that removing a name alone goes far enough for this part of the application process. Think of how some employers favour candidates from certain educational backgrounds or look at dates on qualifications to get an idea of someone’s age”
Do people share Alex’s view? I asked my LinkedIn connections whether they believed that personal information should be omitted from a CV. The result was comprehensive. Three-quarters of respondents believed that a candidate’s name should be removed from a CV, and over 60% thought all personal information should be excluded.
It’s not a perfect solution. A blind CV can help remove bias at the start of the process, but it doesn’t stop unintended favouritism at the interview stage.
The obvious flaw in asking for blind CVs is that a candidate can hardly send in a job application without including contact details. The removal of personal information is a task performed by the recruitment agency, or by someone in the organisation not directly involved in the selection process. The important thing is that the person who is creating the shortlist for the interview sees the anonymised version of the CV.
Is a fully blind process the recruiting panacea?
Removing all information that could trigger unconscious bias is the ideal scenario, but it is difficult to remove all cultural references. An extreme example used to be found in Northern Ireland, where including a school on a CV gave an obvious clue of where the attendee was from a Catholic or Protestant background, often resulting in sectarian discrimination.
A CV is infused with cultural clues, but removing all such references might not leave too much for the hiring manager to go on.
However, on balance, the fewer references there to background, race, gender and age, the better it is. The point about unconscious bias is that it is unconscious. If we don’t know we are favouring one candidate over another, then it makes sense to lessen the risk. Of course, hopefully, no one reading this would consciously discriminate against people for the wrong reason.
If you are currently recruiting, please talk to us about how unconscious bias can be minimised. We are, and always will be, committed to diversity and equality of opportunity.
David Waddell is Managing Director at Harvey John.
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Harvey John is a specialist Accountancy, Tax & Treasury, and Legal recruiter operating across the UK & EMEA market
Alongside his commercial responsibilities, David manages the Public Practice division working with boutique practices as well as leading regional and national accountancy firms. He also recruits for commercial senior finance roles with clients ranging from multinational organisations to private equity backed businesses experiencing high growth.