Recruitment & Selection


Shining a spotlight on unconscious bias

Unconscious bias has been a ‘hot topic’ in mainstream news this year, with high profile people talking about it, including Members of Parliament (MPs) and Prince Harry. 

We’re delighted unconscious bias is slowly becoming part of the vernacular, because with increased conversation, comes more awareness. It’s an important topic, which needs to be universally understood because once people start to challenge their own and other people’s unintentional biases, then we take steps towards living in a more just society.

So in what context has unconscious bias appeared in the news? Well, two months ago, a fierce debate broke out when the House of Commons offered unconscious bias training to MPs, only for a number of MPs to refuse to take part. – BBC News.

Simon Woolley, an anti-racism campaigner said he was “appalled” that some MPs had refused the unconscious bias training. He expressed that: “Particularly following the Black Lives Matter Movement, we need all our parliamentarians to make an honest appraisal about our often inbuilt prejudices. It would help them be better politicians.” – The Guardian.

Then again last month, Prince Harry spoke of his lack of awareness of unconscious bias growing up and how seeing his wife Meghan’s experience of unconscious bias had brought the subject into sharper focus for him: “I had no idea it existed. And then, sad as it is to say, it took me many, many years to realise it. Especially then living a day or a week in my wife’s shoes.” – YouTube interview.

Whilst unconscious bias doesn’t make the headlines as often as cases of discrimination (be it racism, sexism etc), that doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly damaging for those individuals who suffer as a result of it. Before we look at the detrimental impacts of UB, let’s first be clear about what it is and why it exists:

Unconscious biases are unintentional stereotypes or people preferences, formed through our social experiences, including family, school, friends, work culture and media exposure. It’s scientifically proven: ‘Unconscious bias has been identified, observed, and validated in brain studies using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology.’ – Psychology Today.

I think the brain science behind unconscious bias is fascinating! Unconscious bias happens when our brains make very quick judgements and categorises people and situations, without us even realising it. The brain does this because it is exposed to billions of pieces of information a day. It has to take cognitive shortcuts in order to process the sheer amount of data involved and to keep us safe (a super important skill in terms of human survival and evolutionarily-speaking). These shortcuts manifest in the form of assumptions, biases and preferences.

We all have unconscious biases. Yes, you, me and everyone in between! Even if you believe yourself not to be prejudiced or discriminatory, you will still act in biased ways. It’s a by-product of our cognitively limited brains. Behavioural scientist Dr. Pragya Agarwal says: “Nobody wants to think that they are biased, but we all are and once we start acknowledging that we can do something about it.” – The Guardian. 

Did you know there are different types of unconscious bias? ‘Affinity Bias’ is when you like someone, because they are similar to you, for example. ‘Conformity Bias’ is falling into line with the thoughts of others, rather than exercising your own independent judgement. You can learn about other types of unconscious bias in this Enact Solutions’ blog we wrote. What I find striking is how pervasive unconscious biases are, seeping into all aspects of our lives, both personally and professionally. 

In the workplace, for example, unconscious bias is often evident in people’s micro-behaviours – ‘the little things that we say and do that show how we regard those around us. Even these very small behaviours can make people feel excluded and can have long-term effects.’ – HR Magazine. For example interrupting or speaking over a colleague in a meeting or leaving someone out of a working group discussion might result from unintentional biases, but they negatively impact on staff inclusivity.

Unconscious bias can also affect decisions on recruitment, allocation of work, staff development and promotions. As ACAS explains: ‘Employers can overlook talented workers and instead favour those who share their own characteristics or views.’ Not only is this not fair to individuals, but it’s not good for business.

It’s widely known and scientifically proven through multiple studies that diverse workforces perform better financially. (McKinsey & Company) By having a diverse workforce – employees of all different ages, cultural backgrounds, gender, physical and mental abilities, race, religion, sexual orientation etc, then your organisation will be richer in experience and produce better results.

It’s therefore important for companies to understand the benefits of a diverse workplace, train employees to be aware of unconscious bias and its detrimental impacts, reflect on their own biases, examine recruitment and working practices and take steps to minimise the impact of unconscious bias. As this BBC Worklife article explains: ‘Unconscious bias keeps people and businesses from reaching their full potential and it perpetuates cycles of inequality. The good news is, there are ways to try and correct it.’

Unconscious Bias is our most popular workshop at Enact Solutions (see our Events page for upcoming showcases) and we’re thrilled that companies are committed to learning about and challenging their unconscious biases. 

Our Artistic Director, Daniel McClelland says: “One of the main reasons companies have cited coming to us at Enact Solutions recently for our unconscious bias training is because of how much inequality and prejudice has been highlighted through George Floyd, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign and Covid-19. Companies are becoming more aware that they need to do more to raise awareness and challenge damaging behaviours and stereotypes.”

He goes on to say: “Our unconscious mind is considered to be the beating heart of our people preferences and bias, so you could argue that racism, sexism, and simply put prejudice in all its forms, stems from our unconscious brain. In many cases this isn’t our fault, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to change. We teach people to become aware of their unconscious biases and therefore be able to challenge them.”

It’s a statement echoed by Prince Harry: “No-one is blaming anybody . . . You can’t really point the fingers, especially when it comes to unconscious bias. But once you realise . . . then the onus is on you to go out and educate yourself, because ignorance is no longer an excuse.”

Let’s keep learning.

Jemma Houghton


Jemma Houghton is one of our Associates at Enact Solutions. She works in a range of areas including research, writing, filming and workshop consultancy.


How to improve hiring decisions by mastering your mind 1

Did you know that if you go for a job interview on a rainy day then your chances of getting the job are at least 10% lower than if it’s a sunny day!

This was the findings of a research study done by the University of Toronto looking at Unconscious Biases in recruitment.

Another research study by the University of Sheffield found that in the UK, if you have an easily recognisable English name on the top of your CV you are twice as likely to be invited for an interview than if you have an Asian or African name. This finding came as the result of putting different names at the top of exactly the same CV and applying for over 3000 jobs.

Best Intentions

For most of us involved in recruiting and hiring, we go into the screening and interviewing process with the best intentions. We want the best person for the job and we are trying to be objective in our decisions. We certainly aren’t consciously thinking, “It’s raining outside so I don’t think I like this person”.

But behind the scenes of our conscious thinking, there are unconscious processes taking place so rapidly that we don’t even know about it. Unconsciously we can make a judgement about someone in less than a fifth of a second, which is faster than our eyes are even able to process their face.

Blinded by the Bias

Here are a few examples of different biases that might take place in a recruitment setting:

Affinity Bias – If the candidate went to the same school as us or grew up in the same town as us then we are likely to have a preference towards them.

Similarity Bias – If the candidate has a similar personality or dress sense then it is likely we will have a preference to them over someone better qualified but different to us. After all, we like people like us.

Beauty Bias – Looks count. If we think someone is attractive, it will play a part in our decision making. Equally, size matters. Did you know that 36% of US CEO’s are over 6’2” tall but only 4% of the US population are over 6’2” tall. For some reason being a tall man can significantly help in climbing the career ladder.

Halo or Horns effect – We can allow the judgement of one significant event override all other information. For example, if someone won an award for overachieving at a reputable company a few Years ago then we might ignore the fact that they were let go from their last job for not achieving their targets. This could also work the other way around where someone being let go from a job could override the fact that they had previously won an award.

Confirmation Bias – As mentioned earlier, we unconsciously make a judgement in as little as a fifth of a second so when our conscious, rational thinking kicks in after about half a second, we look for evidence to confirm our initial judgement because we don’t like to change our minds.

So if our own minds are tricking us and potentially preventing us from hiring the best person for the job, which could impact productivity and profitability, what can we do about it?

Overcoming Bias

There are two main areas that we can look at to minimise the impact of Unconscious Biases in recruitment. Firstly, we can set up our recruitment processes so they take some of these Biases out of play. Let’s call these External. Secondly, we can turn the torch inwards and build our self-awareness in order to shift our attitudes and behaviours in certain situations. We can call these Internal. Let’s take a look at the specifics of each in a little more detail:

External

Take names off CVs before screening. If we know that a name can significantly impact our initial judgements, then having name blind CVs, will enable us to focus on the important information rather than the name.
Use video or phone interviewing to screen candidates at the early stages and ask all candidates the same questions to even out the playing field.

Use technology to allow data driven analytics to factor into the process rather than just human opinion.
Make sure candidates receive thorough feedback. The process of providing feedback to both successful and unsuccessful candidates will clarify reasons for making certain decisions.

Internal

The starting point of challenging biases at play is firstly having an awareness of what they are and how they are showing up. When we start noticing things like our automatic reaction to seeing a candidate is wearing the same tie as us, then we can consciously shift to a more balanced appraisal.

In his book Everyday Bias, Howard J Ross outlines the P.A.U.S.E. model as a way of noticing our biases and shifting our thinking. Here is an overview of the model:

P – Pay Attention to what’s happening beneath the judgement (Event vs Interpretation)

A – Acknowledge or identify your reaction / interpretation / judgements

U – Understand other possible reactions / interpretations / judgements

S – Search for the most constructive / empowering or productive way to deal with the situation

E – Execute your action plan (Act consistently with what makes the most sense)

Next Steps

To find out more about Unconscious Bias and specifically how you can make positive changes in your organisation, take a look at our products page. And if you want to experience an innovative and powerful way to explore Unconscious Bias  and best practice around recruitment & selection, please visit our Events page and register to attend one of our complimentary workshops being run across the country.