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Defeating unconscious bias in recruitment

Posted on 18 September 2018

Defeating unconscious bias in recruitment

Over the summer PWC announced a ban on all male shortlists while KPMG declared that it would not be considering shortlists from recruitment agencies that did not include women.

The move by two of the big four accountancy firms reflects a growing realisation within the market that in order to achieve genuine diversity throughout the workforce, proactive steps need to be taken from the inception of the employment relationship to level the playing field.

PWC's and KPMG's latest announcements focus on gender diversity.  This is understandable as we enter the mid-point in the second year of the mandatory gender pay reporting cycle. However, their decisions are also significant to the wider diversity picture because:

  • they highlight the role of recruiters and recruitment in achieving meaningful and lasting change; and
  • by introducing mandatory rules for shortlists, these firms and others like them recognise the role and impact of unconscious bias in recruitment. By putting in place checks and balances from day one, employers can hope to lessen the impact of unconscious bias to enable them to create stronger, more dynamic and diverse workforces.

However, to be successful in this ambition, employers will look to their recruitment agents for help and support.  Recruiters therefore face the twin challenge of tackling both their own and their clients' unconscious bias. Recruiters must therefore:

  • understand how unconscious bias works; and
  • communicate effectively with their clients to lessen its impact.

Unconscious bias, also termed ‘implicit bias’, refers to prejudices, albeit often subtle prejudices, that we all hold but are unaware of. They reside in the deepest part of our minds (referred to as the unconscious by psychologists) and influence the decisions made by recruiters and business leaders at all levels. They affect recruitment, skew talent and performance reviews as well as impacting on promotion. Unwittingly they can undermine an organisation’s culture.

There are various measures of unconscious bias, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) being perhaps the best known. There is plenty of other evidence and numerous studies showing its prevalence.

One Harvard University study, for example, showed that white job applicants received 50 per cent more job offers than black applicants with identical CVs.  Another study in the US found that college professors were 26 per cent more likely to respond to a student's email when it was signed by an individual with a male Caucasian sounding name than a name signalling that the individual was from an ethnic minority or a woman. Similarly, a Yale University study found that male and female scientists (trained to reject the subjective) were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency and pay them more than women, simply based on the typically male and female names on otherwise equivalent CVs.

But if it is unconscious, can it be tackled?

Unconscious bias awareness training for managers involved in recruitment is becoming increasingly common in an attempt to uncover unconscious bias, both biases of the managers themselves and of their organisations as a whole. Recruitment consultants can engage in such training independently or in partnership with their clients. Commercially, such an offering can be immensely attractive to clients.

However, while no doubt an essential first step, research has shown that it is not sufficient to just train and change the mind-sets of individuals. Structures and processes may also have to change.

Behavioural design - de-biasing organisations by changing the environment – has more recently been promoted as a way to move the needle on equality. In her book "What works – Gender equality by design", Iris Bohnet, a behavioural economist and professor at Harvard, puts forward practical steps for reducing bias and achieving equality. Steps can include using analytics to monitor recruitment decisions, using blind CVs and/or comparative recruitment and evaluation procedures to hire the best talent using structured interviews, increasing transparency and promoting role models to shift hidden biases.

Employers have resisted and are likely to continue to resist campaigning groups' calls for quotas in recruitment. However, by using the above tools, recruiters can support employers in attempting to level the playing field and reap the rewards of a more diverse workforce.

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