Waving goodbye to your unconscious bias

April 7, 2021

As managers, recruiting is the most important thing we do. We all want to appoint candidates that have the right skills, reflect the organisation’s values, and become an integral part of the team, but it is important to understand our unconscious biases in order to avoid introducing unintentional discrimination, especially as we are all looking to diversify the sector. Here is some friendly advice ahead of your own Kickstart recruitments.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias refers to the split-second judgement we may make about a situation or person. Our brain forms these views based on our knowledge on social situations, cultures, stereotypes or personal experiences. It affects our own everyday behaviour and, more importantly, our decision making. For instance, rapport building questions in an interview might help calm a candidate’s nerves, but they can lead to a bias, meaning you might inadvertently favour candidates with backgrounds, experiences and interests similar to your own. Seemingly small biases like this can create a massive impact on your ability to recruit fairly. 

What does unconscious bias look like?

There are many different types of unconscious bias. Below are two of the most common types found in recruitment: 

Confirmation Bias. This involves drawing conclusions about a person or situation based on your own pre-existing beliefs, or desires, rather than on merit. For example, when shortlisting, it’s common to form initial opinions of someone based on irrelevant attributes, like their name, or where they grew up. Although unintentional, these preconceptions formed during the earlier stages are dangerous, and can steer your interview questions in order to confirm your initial opinion of the candidate. 

The Halo Effect. This describes the tendency to have higher expectations after learning something impressive about a candidate, creating a ‘halo effect’. For example, finding that a candidate has previously worked at a prestigious company, or has studied at an elite school or university, may form opinions or expectations about their abilities. The candidate is then viewed in a positive light before even meeting them, which may blind the recruiter from potential red flags or inadequacies. Recruiters need to consider the full range of a candidate’s experiences, skills and personality to make a well-informed decision, and not be hooked by experiences that could be linked to their privilege. 

How you can prevent unconscious bias

  1. Go as low as you dare go with education and experience in the person specification. In the environmental sector, there is no shortage of quality graduates looking for their first job. Asking for a degree and work experience might well make your shortlisting a lot quicker, but it will also mean you inadvertently turn away potentially brilliant employees that have not had the privilege to be able to volunteer, or study at university. This means you are also discriminating against candidates from ethnic minorities who, typically, come from less advantaged backgrounds. This is undoubtedly a big part of why the environmental sector is so white. 
  2. Send a clear message to would-be applicants. Whilst not technically tackling an unconscious bias, it is good practice to state on your job advert that your organisation is working to tackle its lack of racial diversity, and that you would, very much, welcome applicants from non-white minority ethnic groups. These encouraging words may make the difference between a candidate looking and that candidate applying.  
  3. Create an anti-bias system for shortlisting. Applications should always be anonymised before going to the panel and you should have a fixed scoring system based on how they meet the essential and desirable qualities in the person specification. 
  4. See the bigger picture with each candidate. Sadly it is common for people who have had career breaks or changes in careers to be discriminated against. The same applies to people who have had a non-traditional education, or who have just had a difficult upbringing through no fault of their own. Challenge yourself, and your fellow panelists, to see differences as a good thing, as they often come with both greater experience and reliance.  
  5. Diversify your panel. Having a fair mix of genders, cultural diversity and age range on your interview panel will help combat unconscious bias. If you have more than one interview stage then it is good to have people from different backgrounds at each stage. 
  6. Stick to the script during interviews. If an interview relies too much on personalised or chatty dialogues, certain candidates can be given an automatic advantage over others. Sticking to a script might sound a little systematic or restrictive, but it can help remove bias. Interviewers should decide collectively in advance what constitutes a bad, a good and a great answer to each question, and use that to decide who gets the job.

Manobi Mostafa, Recruitment Manager, Generation Success

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