We can roughly define “bias” as unfair prejudice against, or in favour of, a certain person or group. Biases can be held by an individual, group, or even an entire organisation, and can be based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, political views… pretty much anything, to be honest.
What’s the difference between conscious and unconscious bias?
Conscious bias is simply when an individual or group recognises that bias exists. For some, that might mean they’ve embraced their biases, resulting in overt intolerance. But, in other cases, those with conscious biases may recognise them as harmful, and do their best to manage and control them.
Unconscious bias, on the other hand, is implicit. That means that we hardly register it as it works away in the background. Unconscious bias is our human habit of absorbing knowledge and experiences over time, and unknowingly using them to categorise people or groups. We’ll often unconsciously reinforce these categories over time, as we’re influenced by family, friends, peers, and other sources like the news.
While these categories can result in a positive judgement, more often than not they’ll negatively influence how we respond to people.
Why it’s important to understand unconscious bias:
The biggest reason to understand unconscious bias is because it affects everyone. Yep, everyone. But how can we be so sure?
Because it’s science. We once lived in a threat-filled world, and our ability to categorise, make snap-judgements and act upon them is what kept us alive. Now, most of that threat is non-existent. But our instinctive habits remain, meaning unconscious bias is truly a human problem. If you’re a person with a brain, there’s a good chance that some kind of unconscious bias is affecting your beliefs and decisions.
That said, we can’t blame ourselves for unconscious bias. It’s hard work rewiring the survival instincts we’ve built over millennia. What’s really important is that, firstly, we recognise that bias exists. And, secondly, we recognise the impact it has – especially on how we hire.
How does unconscious bias impact the recruitment process?
The short answer is this: unconscious bias makes it harder for employers to consider every candidate objectively, based on the same consistent criteria.
This means the process will inevitably favour certain groups, making the process inherently unfair. But that unfairness isn’t a problem for its own sake – it also translates into a narrower talent pool, increasing the chances that you’ll miss some incredible people because of bias.
But if that’s the short answer, then the long answer is that there’s actually all sorts of different types of unconscious bias – each with their own impact on how you hire. Here’s a couple of the most common:
Confirmation bias occurs when someone makes a snap judgement about a candidate, and then actively seeks out information to prove that assumption. This can lead to irrelevant interview questions, for example, which have little to do with measuring potential or fit.
It’s worth remembering that, at times, these snap judgements get made before we’ve even met the candidate. A detail in someone’s CV, for example, can often be enough to prime our confirmation bias ahead of an interview.
The Halo effect is when a recruiter or hiring manager gets so invested in some positive candidate attribute, that they fail to see any negatives that might affect that candidate’s suitability. It can be anything from experience to ability, hobbies, background, or even their appearance.
In effect, that one good point shines out like a halo, obscuring everything else from our view. This makes it harder to find the most suitable candidates, and often makes unsuitable candidates seem unduly suitable. With the Halo effect, there’s a good chance the wrong person gets the job.
This is the act of effectively cutting corners in how we measure suitability, based on incomplete or irrelevant factors. One common example is the (completely false) perception of overweight people as lazy, or disorganised. This is a mental shortcut, which swerves right past any objective measurement and lands employers right in discrimination territory.
Other factors that often stimulate the affect heuristic include certain schools, names, or even regional traits like an accent.
Affinity bias is when we feel unduly positive about a candidate because some aspect of their appearance, experience or personality mirrors our own. In the times of sabretooth tigers, sameness often meant safety. So it’s no surprise that we’re still drawn to people who are similar to us today.
But the risks involved with affinity bias are obvious. Namely, it naturally hampers diversity. If we only ever progress and select people who look, sound, and think like us, we’re unlikely to create the diverse, dynamic teams that are proven to be most successful.
How to tackle unconscious bias in hiring:
Unconscious bias in hiring is a tricky challenge to beat, because (as we’ve said) it’s so deeply ingrained in how our brains work. That said, here are three important steps to overcoming it:
Recognise that bias exists (and its effects)
As with any problem, the first step to beating bias is to recognise it exists in the first place. This might not just be a personal journey, though – denial of bias can become an organisational issue. In this case, it may take a cultural shift and plenty of education before you can get to work on overcoming it.
It’s also important to make sure everyone is aware of the effects of unconscious bias. It’s been shown, for example, that it prevents the creation of truly diverse teams, which have proven to be more innovative and more profitable. Shining a light on these points will help get the internal buy-in needed to beat unconscious bias for good.
Consider your own biases
Yes, unconscious bias is an organisational problem. But, as we’ve already mentioned, it’s a truly human problem too. So, to truly beat unconscious hiring bias, we all need to do a bit of soul-searching. If we can recognise our own biases, we can take steps to mitigate them.
Get the right support
Even if we know bias exists, and we know our own biases, it’s still a long, tough road to beating them. Often, even unconscious bias training isn’t enough. We’ve found that 81% of employers already run some kind of unconscious bias training, but, despite that, 75% will still be reviewing their diversity hiring policies and practices this year.
This follows some high profile concerns about the impact of such training – the Civil Service, for example, decided to end its own programme last year after failing to see any real change in behaviour.
This is where technology can support employers in the fight against unconscious bias. Behaviour-based assessments like ours, for example, help employers overcome bias by uncovering truly objective insight into every candidate’ natural strengths.
Discover more about behaviour-based assessments & unconscious bias
With our psychometric assessment, we want to give every individual the opportunity to show their potential, and every employer the means to see it. Keen to learn a bit more about how it works? We’d love to chat – just click here to set up a call.