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It’s not your fault - we are all prone to Unconscious Bias!

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

As the programme leader for Hertfordshire Business School’s Business Communications programme, it was my job once upon a time to design an embedded learning model for the School. A framework that would give students from ethnic minority backgrounds an equal chance as their white British counterparts of obtaining a first-class degree upon graduation. Part of that process was the introduction of anonymous grading, which is the practice of hiding students’ identities to achieve fairness.

Why do we recommend anonymising applications?

Because no matter how pure our intentions are, we are all prone to unconscious bias. We all come with our individual backgrounds and past experiences that we bring with us into a professional setting, whether or not we are aware of this. Further, we have a natural tendency to draw patterns and make unconscious assumptions based on those past experiences and backgrounds, compounded by stereotypes and what we get from social media.

Take a look at the diagram below that is a compilation of how a person's identity has an actual, measurable effect on how they are perceived. The two dimensions measured are warmth (trustworthiness, friendliness) and competence (capability, assertiveness).

As you can see from the above diagram, what we commonly term as our ‘gut instinct’ is in fact our inclination towards seeing patterns and making quick connections. When we see a homeless young person, many of us assume that their competence levels are low and we, therefore, peg them as untrustworthy. In comparison, a middle-class Christian woman is assumed to be highly competent and is almost instantly admired.

It is not our fault. Every day, we are faced with thousands of micro-decisions and therefore our gut instinct helps us to take necessary shortcuts in decision-making. However, this can lead to negative outcomes when it comes to hiring decisions.

In countries that require candidates to share a photograph of themselves as part of the application process, it has been proven that call-back rates for women wearing a headscarf are significantly lower than for their counterparts. Similarly, candidates with foreign-sounding names tend to face discrimination across the Western world. The data shows that In the UK, job seekers with non-white-sounding names have to send approximately 75% more CVs in order to receive the same number of callbacks as a job seeker with a white-sounding name. It’s no wonder I used to meet many Cheryls, Suzies and Jonathans from China seeking an undergrad or master’s degree from us at the University of Hertfordshire!

Since unconscious bias is an inescapable part of the human experience, the most effective way to prevent minority background candidates from being overlooked is to simply remove the information that would trigger this bias. However, many companies are more concerned with making a symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups rather than actually being inclusive. There is a difference!

If you have ever watched the TV show - The Voice - this is the perfect example of anonymous selection which is carried out in the form of ‘blind’ auditions. The idea is to improve the diversity of singers and move away from the prevailing culture that dictates the standard of all round beauty even amongst singers who ironically should showcase beauty through their voice. As a result, the best singers known to us globally come from underrepresented groups. When we apply this thinking to wider corporate hiring, we can expect similar results.

The bottom line is that if you do not hire anonymously, you are at risk of overlooking some of the best talent out there, which could be a missed opportunity! These candidates are more likely to come from under-represented groups. Therefore, it makes sense to anonymise peoples’ names, addresses, dates of birth, genders and of course what they look like. This basic information is actually irrelevant as the hiring decision should purely be based on merit.

However, even if you remove identifying information from applications, academic achievements and work experience tend to give an indication of an individual’s socioeconomic background. Sure, a job seeker’s qualifications could be an indication of intelligence, however they can also highlight the kind of background they are from. It is no secret that those who attended the top private schools and universities tend to land the top jobs and therefore have the opportunity to gain experience in companies widely considered as the most impressive places to work.

So, the risk of bias is inevitable when a hiring manager focuses on the information around education and work experience. Yes, there is value in such metrics, however if there is one thing I learned as a Corporate Trainer in the UAE, it is that education and experience are in fact pretty weak predictors of future job performance. Surely there must be fairer and more reliable ways of assessing job seekers’ actual competencies. One suggestion would be to include work simulations, where you can ask prospective candidates to either execute or explain their approach to an aspect of the role.

Bias is not something that can be trained out of people, so if you want to improve diversity and level the playing field for job seekers, you have to design an environment in which bias cannot creep in. Ultimately, anonymous recruitment does not guarantee ethnic minority or female appointees every time, however, if done right, an anonymous, skills-based process that emphasises ability over background, will improve diversity over time. After all, the purpose of a hiring process should be to identify the best candidates as fairly and accurately as possible.

How has your organisation dealt with unconscious bias?

Are you aware of the various biases that could be holding you back from hiring the best people for the job?

What talent sourcing policies and practices work best for you, your organisation, and your clients?

Let us know, and get in touch by visiting us here:

To your success!


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