Bias? By us? Opening our eyes to prejudice in recruitment
Next time you are looking for a CEO for your company, we suggest you put the following line in your person specification: “Must be over six feet tall.” (For European readers this is over 183cm).
We hope you agree.
Actually, we don’t.
- you’ve choked on your coffee (metaphorically)
- you think this is a horrible, discriminatory and biased thing to do
- you recognise that the implications of this statement would be to discriminate directly against short people (although this is not illegal) and indirectly against women (which is). Both these things would be equally undesirable.
We know you wouldn’t do anything like that.
So why are the majority of corporate CEOs in the United States over six feet tall?
We’ll return to this question later.
As working professionals, we like to think we make objective hiring decisions, but in reality our impressions and judgements of others are often coloured by bias, based on ‘gut feeling’, or upon subjective judgement. In recruitment, bias can lead to poor hiring decisions, the implications of which include financial costs and possible legal consequences.
Despite biases having a negative connotation, they do serve an important function: they help us to ‘fill in the gaps’ by making assumptions, which enable us to quickly make sense of a vast amount of information. Over time, based on experience, we create preconceived notions of people, places, and things; this creates preconceptions and stereotypes. Therefore bias is very difficult to avoid, can sometimes be useful, but is frequently problematical when making quick decisions about complex things: ie people.
Let’s return to our opening theme: the common bias that ‘taller people make better leaders’. A study carried out by Judge and Cable found that many men in leadership roles are at least six feet tall. In the US, 60% of all Corporate CEOs are over six feet tall, although only 15% of American men are over six feet. Does this mean that height plays a part in good leadership? Not necessarily, but it does play a part in stereotyping a good leader. Consciously or not, it has become a consistent criterion in leader selection.
If we always base hiring decisions on such stereotypes, we risk overlooking the best candidates, which could be a costly recruitment mistake. Poor recruitment results in time and money being wasted on: training; dealing with lower productivity; dismissal procedures; and further recruitment.
Everyone, including HR practitioners, needs to accept the fact that humans are prone to bias, and to embrace methods of minimising it in the hiring process. Increasing your awareness is a good starting point, which means recognising the most common biases in hiring:
- In-group bias
- Hiring people from a similar group to our own (a young manager favouring young applicants, for example). In-group bias can be based on age, gender, ethnicity, social class, professional background and more.
- Making unfavourable judgments towards a person without being aware of other facts. Prejudices tend to occur against people from different groups (or out-groups in particular – ie social groups with which an individual does not identify). This includes minority groups.
- The Halo/Horns effect
- This is when our overall view of a person’s character is exaggerated by some particular detail(s); the impression can become either positive (halo) or negative (horns). Attractiveness has been shown to produce a halo effect, with hiring managers favouring attractive applicants over non-attractive ones. Physically attractive people are seen as more intelligent, warmer and are perceived to have better social skills.
- Confirmation bias
- This is when an initial judgement is made on a candidate and the hiring manager then looks for evidence to back it up, even if the judgement was ill-founded.
- Biased recall
- This happens when we remember something incorrectly regarding a candidate. We have a tendency to make memory errors as a result of our existing prejudices and stereotyping, even when we are presented with objective facts.
Being aware of bias is just the first step in minimising its negative effect in the hiring process. In a future blog post we will discuss what it is that makes the hiring process so vulnerable to bias, and look at solutions to overcome this. In the meantime, more information can be found in OPP’s paper: ‘Combating bias in hiring decisions’.