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Unconscious bias in the hiring process

Posted by Claire Stradling

We have been recruiting within the public sector for many years now and it’s no secret that workforces being more diverse and inclusive is probably the biggest ongoing issue that clients/hiring managers have. But with such an emphasis on attracting diverse talent, where are organisations falling down? 

On speaking to several clients, I would say it comes down to three key factors;

  1. Resourcing from diverse talent pools – or the lack of.
  2. Candidates either having a bad experience or even a poor preconception of the organisation through hearsay and not wanting to apply.
  3. And the hiring process – more so, unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias?

It’s biological, stimulated by our senses developing physiologically throughout our lives making it almost impossible to eradicate. Your personal experiences, social stereotypes and cultural context can have an impact on your decisions and actions without you realising. A common mistake and assumption is that it is something that can be overcome. It can’t. At best, it can be recognised, acknowledged and restricted - but it will always exist because we are human.

On a positive note, a vast number of organisations have recognised where this is affecting their hiring process and have put various methods in place to try and prevent unconscious bias. But what are they? Are these methods effective? And although they may minimise unconscious bias, do they then promote positive discrimination?    

  • Standardised questions
  • Diverse interview panels
  • Anonymous CV sifting
  • Assessment Centres
  • Written/psychometric testing
  • Advert wording
  • AI
  • Training on UB
  • Women only job boards
  • BAME specific advertising campaigns
  • LGBT open day

I have discussed these methods with a number of my clients and the general feedback is that most have pros and cons but don’t fix the issue. For example, anonymous CV sifting is a common method that is used and yes, it can eliminate unconscious bias from the outset but eventually, at some point, the organisation will meet the candidate. Therefore, it can be said that the unconscious bias is simply being shifted down the recruitment process rather than happening at the front end.

AI is another method that constantly gets a lot of press and I believe that it is a great tool because it is taking out human emotion.  There have however been a few arguments against the use of AI – one of the arguments I read online was how the systems are programmed, will this determine the type of candidate the organisation is looking for and, in some cases, overlook other potentials that would usually be perfect face-to-face?

I personally believe that one of the best methods is a combination of standardised questioning and diverse interview panels. The only fall back with panel interviews and probably unrelated in this instance but timing and more so, securing people's time. Recruitment is one of the most important things in an organisation to help it move forward but it is not always the most important task when it comes to an individuals’ day. As a recruiter, one of the most frustrating parts of my job is booking in interview slots, especially when it comes to senior appointments.  Even when you may have agreed timeslots in the outset, as we know anything can happen on the day and for whatever reason, interviews will be rearranged and then organisations will on occasion miss out on the top talent. 

It really is a difficult task to eradicate any form of unconscious bias and I’m always keen to hear where techniques have worked well so that I can share these with my clients. When speaking with a few of my internal recruitment contacts for their views they said the following: 

“I would definitely add awareness raising (rather than training) with hiring managers.  It's amazing how even small facets of a person can make a difference if we aren't aware.   It could be a certain haircut, the colour of tie, something that might seem innocuous but create an instant internal reaction.  What's massively important is acknowledging your biases. Allowing hiring managers to think about their own unconscious bias in a safe and non-judgmental way (for example, they shouldn't have to disclose these unless willing to share) allows them to reflect on previous actions and be more mindful going forward. This impacts at interview stage and encourages hiring managers to think about their decision making. Using a recruitment professional who will help to positively challenge you through the process, test out assumptions and ask for evidence from the selection process rather than going on 'hunches' which helps to reduce bias.” - Recruitment Business Partner

“This is a huge topic and very popular. In my opinion, one or two workshops or training sessions for a couple of hours doesn’t get rid of unconscious bias. This requires a deep socioeconomic psychological to an understanding of why we think the way we do, and that unconscious bias can sometimes be exactly that - unconscious but not necessarily malicious or prejudice. Overcoming it takes a lot of coaching, training, and support at all stages of the process. '- Head of Recruitment



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