Whether we recognise it or not, everyone brings some form of bias into the workplace, but tackling unconscious bias – that which we are unaware of – is particularly tricky as it’s neither visible nor deliberate. Claire McKee from Clarendon Executive looks at how how unconscious bias goes much deeper than just recruitment, impacting almost every facet of organisational decision-making and the employee lifecycle, and says businesses have a responsibility to address and control such bias if there’s any genuine chance of improving the diversity and inclusivity of our workplaces.
Diversity and inclusion rank high on the agenda of many employers, and rightly so. Not only is there an undisputed moral argument for diversity, there is also ample evidence proving the business case for diversity – more diverse businesses are more successful and profitable.
The reasons for disparity and inequality are various but a frequently cited cause and one that is receiving an increasing amount of attention, is unconscious bias. Unconscious bias can skew talent and performance reviews, affect recruitment and promotion, unwittingly undermine an organisation’s culture and result in discriminatory treatment or practices.
The extent of unconscious bias
Unconscious bias refers to a bias which happens outside of our control, triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.
In a work context, typically we consider gender, race, age or sexual orientation as characteristics to be mindful of during the recruitment process, but unconscious bias goes so much further than that.
Where hiring decisions can often, in the end, boil down to ‘gut feeling’ surely there is no better euphemism for giving in to unconscious bias. Leaders may discriminate because candidates think in different ways or at a different pace – characteristics relating to neurodiversity. And this is not exclusive to the recruitment stage. Unconscious bias influences and permeates all aspects of organisational decision-making from selection right through to succession planning and everything in between.
Neutralising the influence of unconscious bias – HR tips
If you are responsible for shaping an organisation’s HR practices, you can implement strategies to help you and your colleagues reduce bias in key areas of decision-making:
Recruitment – If you look for talent in the same places, using the same referrals, you’ll get the same kinds of candidates. Additionally, if the hiring team doesn’t have a diverse representation of candidates, it will be difficult to look for and see diversity. Objective hiring criteria is also important to help eliminate bias and promote equality in the hiring process.
Re-evaluating your recruitment process should start with the way in which the ad is written. The content should be essential for the role and use clear and unbiased language. Once applications are in, all demographics should be removed from the CV before assessing which applicants continue in the process. In terms of interviews, the importance attached to these should ideally be reduced and the interview process supplemented and improved by using structured interviews and standardised questions.
Performance Evaluation – Ask yourself the following questions regarding measuring and evaluating performance. Are the tools used to review employees free of bias? What criteria are being used to calibrate performance evaluation? Is it skewed to different types of personalities? Are you being intentional with promoting a diverse set of employees?
Development and Succession Planning – If possible, HR leaders should use predictive analytics and proven metrics to identify and promote those who are most likely to excel. Partnering with an objective third party can help leader make performance-oriented, data driven and informed succession decisions.
Leading by example – tips for leaders
By it’s very nature unconscious bias is difficult to tackle and requires an appreciation and commitment to change across the entire organisation, essentially a cultural shift towards inclusivity and diversity. In addition to process- led HR changes as described above, some leadership tips for achieving such a shift include:
Tackling unconscious bias is not just a moral of HR obligation; it is essential at all levels if organisations are to be truly inclusive. By making best use of the available talent, it can also help to make organisations be more efficient and competitive.